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

Jen Guyton

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.


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


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.  

Previous Episodes

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.

Chris: This week, toasted buns and cheese sandwiches, Rikky Don't Lose That Number, and beginning to form a world view of one's own. Join us on a journey from Cork, Ireland, to Kansas City, Missouri, and a first taste of the wider world.

It's 22.33.

Intro Clip 1: "We report what happens in the United States, warts and all."
Intro Clip 2: "These exchanges shaped who I am."
Intro Clip 3: "And when you get to know these people, they're not quite like you. You read about them. There are people much like ourselves..."
Intro Clip 4: (Singing ... "That's what we call, Cultural Exchange. Oooh, yeah"

Amb. Mulhall: 

So my name is Daniel Mulhall, and I am the Ambassador of Ireland to the United States since August, 2017. In 1974, the summer of '74, I participated in the Summer Work Travel Program, and I spent about three months in Kansas City at that time.

A friend of mine at the University College Cork just suggested to me one day the winter of '73 that maybe we should try and do something different for the summer, and before that I had always worked in my hometown for the summer and so I wasn't sort of driven by a kind of an economic motive. It was much more a motive of, you know, doing something different and getting to see and experience another country. So, we decided on the spur of the moment that we would apply to participate in this summer travel program, and we became one of 150,000 Irish people who've taken part in this program over the last 50 years. And we spent a very happy summer in Kansas City, and also we traveled a little bit to Colorado and then to Boston and New York. My first proper time abroad, my first training course in diplomacy was of being flying solo across the Atlantic and then operating solo in a different country and a different environment for a three month period.

We thought we were we knew everything, but of course, I now know we knew nothing, almost nothing, or very little anyway. I remember the first night in Chicago; it was my first time seeing a really big city, you know, with high rise buildings. You didn't have high rise buildings in Ireland in those days. Of course, I knew about New York. The New York skyline was even in those days was famous. But, the first experience that you think is hilarious now from the perspective of 2019 is we arrived there, we're staying there in a local student hostel, and we were hungry. We went across the street, we went to the nearest restaurant was a pizza restaurant. Neither of us had ever heard of pizza before that time. I mean, that seems extraordinary now because every Irish village today has a pizza place. You can get delivery pizza anywhere in Ireland now, and people are very familiar with it. It's probably a seems a national dish these days in Ireland. But, we were two 19-year-olds from a city of 50,000 people, and yet neither of us had ever come across this phenomenon of a pizza before. So that was the first kind of shock or realization that no other world was the same as what we were used to back at home, despite at how worldly-wise and how well-informed we thought we were.

I didn't have much of an understanding of America before I arrived in Kansas City to be quite honest with you. I suppose like most people of my era it was mainly information we had was mainly gleaned from the newspapers, from watching American programs on television, and from of course, American film. It was Hollywood largely that generated the images that we brought with us. But I suppose what impressed me was that I knew about New York. I didn't expect Kansas City to be quite as advanced a place as it was. I mean if I had any image of Kansas City it was probably more rustic, more rural, a more traditional image drawn from probably seeing references and seeing films that were set in Kansas City in you know, decades or centuries before and that gave an impression of it being a kind of frontier town whereas when you got there you realized it was a fairly sophisticated, modern city with you know the city center that was as impressive as anything I had seen anywhere.

Well, we were extremely fortunate that we were sponsored by two amazing Irish-Americans, Eddie Aylward and John J. Sullivan, Jr., one a lawyer, one a banker ... both at the peak of their careers, both in their 40s/50s, both now sadly deceased. But, they were just magnificent people. They took us in hand and they took us out to dinner on a regular basis and made sure that we were gonna be properly fed, which was always a priority when you're a 19-year-old student in a foreign country. And they got us tickets for ball games, and I experienced my first American football game in Kansas City and my first baseball game there, too. So, I still have a sort of a feeling, a fondness for the Royals and the Chiefs. These things, the accident of where you end up gives you a kind of a lifelong interest in something that you never thought you would have an interest in before.

John Sullivan and Eddie Aylward were the epitome of kindness, and I was delighted on my return visit to meet their relatives. And it was great to be able to say to them, publicly how much these people helped us, how kind they were to us, how they really did take us in hand and give us a magnificent experience of America, which frankly on our own we couldn't have had. I don't know how we -- we would have survived, but it would have been a much more, much more limited experience we would have had had it not been for their ...

Obviously, it was made easy for us by having these two wonderful mentors there who [inaudible 00:08:14] us so well, but you know, moving into rooms at Rockhurst College, now Rockhurst University, settling there and feeling at home there for the period we were there, and getting to know some of the other students who were staying. So, we felt pretty settled pretty quickly.

We got a job within a few days, and therefore had the routine of going to work and meeting everyday Americans who were working in this diner where we were working. It's still there. In fact, I went back to visit it recently ,and it still hasn't changed very much. It's still remarkably still in business and still serving the needs of its customers in the Kansas City area. I was in the kitchen, and I helped to I toasted the buns and cooked the cheese sandwiches, so it was, in fact I now realize it was probably the last job that I ever did other than education and diplomacy. So it's been a it was a last experience of working in a regular kind of environment. I still learned a lot from the people I worked with who were very nice and appeared to me to be regular Americans. They were regular people, either students who were working there for the summer or people who were working there long-term. In fact, I met a woman in Kansas City on my return visit there who worked in this diner for 53 years, and her mother worked there before her. So, that's got a continuity of a kind that you don't get in many walks of life these days.

Well, I felt quite emotional about it, to be honest with you. When I spoke at the Irish Center in Kansas City during my visit, I had a certain kind of feeling of that I was, that my throat was catching and that I was a little bit sort of emotional. I did feel for a moment there kind of a sense of, 'gosh, I was here 45 years ago.' Isn't that extraordinary? And normally you go through life and you you're not confronted all that often with the kind of the sort of reality of the passage of time. But, when you go to a place for the first time in 45 years, you can't help but be that bit more affected by the whole experience, and I certainly was. My wife was with me, who of course I met long, well, a number of years after I was in Kansas City. She felt it was quite an emotional experience for me, too, going to back to places that I had been to as a 19-year-old.

What I see is the road trip we did from Kansas City to Colorado, to Denver and up around the Rockies. John Sullivan had a habit of every two years he gave his old car to a priest in New Mexico. So, we drove out, met the priest in Denver, took the old car back from the priest and drove it back. So, we were away for about a week. But, driving across the Great Plains, between Kansas City and Denver is quite something because it is flat as a pancake and there's hardly anything there apart from small places where you stop for a cup of coffee or to get some gas in your car or have lunch or whatever. And then, you move on. But, there's grain silos to be seen in the distance. That's really, that's the kind of you know the image that I can you know recall most. It's not a spectacular image, but it was one that was quite striking for me. I had never seen a plain as long and flat as that in my entire 19 years of life before that time.

The sound is definitely, and again you'll laugh at this, because it seems so old world, but FM music stations ...

Because in those days, Ireland had one radio station, which played pop/rock music maybe a few hours a week. There were a couple of programs which you could listen to, but we tended to listen to pirate radio. My generation were absolutely wild about pop and rock music. That was our window of the world. That was how we kind of broadened our vision. So, when I came to America, I had a little pocket radio that I could listen every night and every morning to FM radio. That was quite something. And also, in the common room of the place where I was staying, there was an FM station on all the time. And I would sit there, just sort of just enjoying the you know, the sounds of America, which of course, was also the sound of my generation. So, it felt as if, that somehow the music made us belong to this country that produced all this great music, and that you could hear, you know, not just three or four hours a week, but every day and for as many hours as you wanted to hear it. So, that is a strange, but true reflection on how different America was in those days for somebody coming from Ireland who was fascinated by pop music and rock music but couldn't really get enough of it at home.

It certainly did diversify my culinary experience. Ireland is a great food island these days, and every village in Ireland has a fine-dining restaurant. That wasn't the case in the 1970s, by any means. The culinary experience that we had with Eddie Aylward and John Sullivan were probably the first really good dining experiences that we had. The college restaurant in University College Cork would not have been to the standard of a good restaurant that a banker or a lawyer would want to take you to in Kansas City in the 1970s.

I also got to know about the kind of American work ethic, which I was impressed by. There was a man at the diner, he was an African-American man. He was married. He was probably his 40s, I would say at the time. He was a very nice and very intelligent man who had lots to say for himself and was quite a good talker. And, you know, during our breaks, he would chat, he was interested in the fact that we were from a faraway country. And, he told me that he did three jobs, you know, in order to be able to provide for his family and buy a nice car that he really prided himself in. So, that for me was a kind of an eye-opener because it wasn't something that I was familiar with before coming to America was this kind of, you know, willingness to really work very long hours in order to achieve particular goals in life. That was good to hear.

The people at the diner, for example, often asked questions about Ireland, and I would give them a kind of a run down. We had, at that stage, just joined the European Union, so we were newly a European Union member state. The troubles in Northern Ireland, of course, were already a well-known international story at that stage, so I did end up explaining to people what was happening in Northern Ireland as I saw it at that time. And I'm not saying my knowledge at the time was particularly deep or profound, but I did try to explain to people what the situation was all about. And I remember going to dinner with John Sullivan in particular. He was very interested in politics and international relations, so we would discuss international issues with him and political issues with him quite a lot, and so I appreciated that opportunity to talk to an older, but highly informed person about American politics, American life, and also some of the international issues that were current at that time.

I suppose just having been there for three months, having thrived and having managed that business of being away, being a LONG way from home, I remember when I was at University, I was only 80 miles from home. So, it's hardly being away at all. In America, of course, you know in those days you couldn't phone home, it was expensive to phone home, there was no Internet, so you were really on your own for a period. And I suppose that was for me, the ultimate achievement was to prove to myself that I COULD live an autonomous life, albeit with a lot of help from John Sullivan and Eddie Aylward. But, nonetheless, that it was it was something that I, when I joined the Foreign Service, it wasn't the prospect of going abroad and living in another country wasn't so intimidating as it would have been had I not had the experience of living for the summer in Kansas City.

It was my first experience of another culture, another country, another city, living on my own. It was part, I think, of growing up, and I'm really glad I did it. And it was a kind of a first venture I undertook in my then young life, and I'm glad I did it. And I'm glad that it gave me this preparation for dealing with other societies, other communities, other cultures. I mean, when I'm asked the question, what do you, what's the most important quality for a diplomat, I always say, "curiosity". You have to go abroad with a curiosity, a desire to learn, not to think you know everything. And I guess my first brush with that kind of life was coming to Kansas City and actually having to ask people questions about why things were the way they were, and getting their answers and then processing their answers, and gradually developing my own view of the world.

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.

This week, Irish ambassador to the United States, Daniel Mulholland reminisced about his first trip abroad 40 years ago, as part of what is now known as the Summer Work Travel program. For more about the Summer Work Travel program and other ECA Exchange Programs, you can check out eca.state.gov

We encourage you to subscribe to 22.33. Why have you not subscribed already? And we'd love to hear from you. You can write to us at ecacollaboratory@state.gov. That's ecacollaboratory@state.gov

Photos of each week's interviewee and complete episode transcript can be found at our webpage at eca.state.gov/2233

Special thanks to Ambassador Mulhall and his colleagues at the Irish Embassy in Washington, DC, for taking the time to meet with us.

Along with Desiree Williamson, I did the interview, and edited this segment. 

Featured music was "Providence Reel-Man of the House-Speed the Plough" by Aislinn, and "Mainsquare", "Look Inside", "The Last Ones", and "Going to an Anniversary", all by Jahzzar. 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 45 - [Bonus] Doing What Needs to be Done

LISTEN HERE - Episode 45


This is a study in contrasts: A high school student from tropical Ghana sent to the freezing plains of southern Minnesota, the adjustment from a small village school to a giant U.S. high school, and the surreal scene of being a Muslim sent to live with pig farmers (during Ramadan no less).  Our hero not only survived, he thrived.



This is a study in distinct contrasts. From the heat of Ghana, to a Minnesota winter. From a small school in a West African village, to a giant high school in the U.S. Midwest. From a Muslim upbringing in an orphanage, to a life with a family of pig farmers. Sometimes, you just can't make this stuff up.

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


Sometimes in football, you have to make a decision quicker. You have to kick it to score, or to pass to somebody, depending on what, you need to a make a quick decision. So, I actually tried to pass, because the other two defenders were on me. When you're playing football, you're just concentrating on the ball. I managed to dribble one defender, and because the other one came, I tried to pass, and I felt my leg was not pushing the ball enough to pass the ball. So what do I do, I tried to dibble again, and it actually worked, and the only chance I had was to use my left foot. I had to kick the ball, and kick it to the far end of the pole, where the keeper had dived and he couldn't reach it.

And it was quite surprising, because my best foot is my right, and I actually scored with my left, and it just rolled, rolled, and the keeper had jumped, but I kicked it so well that it was far away off his reach, and it went into the net.

Chris: This week, using a computer for the first time, winning a debate, and wearing black and white ... and pink, at a prom, join us, on a journey from Accra, Ghana, to Austin, Minnesota, in teaching young people 21st century skills. 

It's 22.33.

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

Inusah: My name is Inusahh Akansoke Al-Hassan. I'm from Ghana, I'm from Tamale, the northern part of Ghana, and I came on the YES Program, which is the youth exchange in study. I came all the way to Austin, Minnesota, for my exchange year, I went to Austin High School. And currently, as a Yes alumni, after the program, I went back to my country. I've been involved in so many other projects.

I started by training young people at the public schools, skills in computer. Currently, I started a computer school myself, after all the projects, going to the public schools to teach. And then, I started a school which is called AKJS computer school in 2016.

In Ghana, to get opportunity to travel, especially to the United States, was a big honor. At the interview, I explained to them-I made them understand my background. I'm actually an adopted child, I had the opportunity to go to school, my other siblings didn't have the opportunity because basically, my biological parents wouldn't have been able to take care of my education. They couldn't have afforded my education, so my guardian parents who adopted me, took care of my education, my health, my well being, almost everything, till I got to the high school, where the Yes Program found me.

They knew I was ... to them, I believe I'm brilliant, or I'm good, and then I was selected for the program, and that's how I got to Austin, Minnesota.

I would say just waking up, and then finding myself in Austin, Minnesota, just a little bit, it was quite different. Because in Ghana, you know, we watch movies, we see a lot of information- news in the media, and you know we just think, if I'm coming to the U.S., I'm coming to New York City, I'm looking forward to seeing Las Vegas ... so basically, you had this concept of the U.S. as bigger cities, and one of the cultural shock would be coming to a family community in Austin, Minnesota.

My host parents were actually farmers, they raised pigs for the [inaudible 00:04:50] corporation in Austin, and I'm a Muslim, coming into that situation, was quite of a strange thing to me, but I was prepared for this challenge, and I fit in very well, because I decided to help my host parents at their barn-at their farm, when they raised pigs. So when it had to do with given shots, that they giving treatment to the little ones, that's the piglets, I helped them do that, but they understood me, they understood my religion, they respected me. I don't eat pork, so they made sure that anytime we had meal, they get me something different. That they get me chicken, or turkey.

Coming to a white family from a black background, and being the only black person in a white family. From the beginning, you take time to adjust, because you'd ... I believe for them, they were ready for it, because they were so many other students, and they chose to host me, so I believe they were ready for it. But how I was going to transition into the family, was quite a challenge for me from the beginning. At first when I came, I was a little bit cautious, because sometimes I don't you know- sometimes we hear of these challenges, things of racial discrimination ... do they really want to do this? do they really want me in their home? do they really want me in their family?

Then I got to fit in very well, especially my host brother Tanner, whom I shared a room with. He basically did not care. Anything I asked of, he was willing to answer, and with time I now saw the relationship clearer. They helped me into transition to their family and feel accepted.

Things started feeling better and settling in, when I had started school and I got to make some friends. So now I have a balance, friends at school, and then family at home. I felt I knew the town better, I knew my way around. Coming to a new environment, at first people might show you around, if you're not careful you get lost. You just want to go out and then have a look around, because you're afraid maybe you get missing somehow, but after two months, I felt I actually got a hold of it.

In Ghana, the education system is quite different from the U.S. The U.S. is more liberal, I'll say. It made me accountable, you had to change class, you have to go back quick to your locker, and then take some other books, then you go to your next class, so if you don't get there in like-I think it was just 5 minutes to switch classes-and then there was something they called tardy. It's basically lateness, but you're not absent.

So one time my host mom had asked me why I was absent in school, I said "No, if you were late to a class about three times, it resulted to be like you missed a class". So, my classes kept pushed me-because that was not my experience in Ghana. Because in Ghana, you just sit in one class, and then your teachers come in and go. But in the U.S., you had to run round the hall, sometimes you have a class at the other side of the school so you need to be quick.

In the U.S, when you're in school, basically when you're doing assignments, or you're doing homework, one way or the other, you'd use the computer, because perhaps you need to type out your assignment. Of course, they didn't pay attention if I could type or not. No teacher who gave assignment would care if you could type or not, but most of the kids knew how to type, so I was wondering was it from the maybe pervious class, maybe from middle school, or what?

So it was quite a challenge for me typing, so I had to find ways to actually learn how to type. My experience to computers and the internet due to my experience in the U.S. with the educational system, lead me to starting my own computer school in Ghana right now. I bring this experience to other children back home, who perhaps would not have the opportunity that I had.

I participated in debate, and I actually won a first place trophy. I was the only student who had won a trophy in debate that year. I was so proud of that, and I was an exchange student. You know, an exchange student coming all the way from Ghana, you have no idea of the U.S., you have no idea of the U.S. education system, and you had to even go to a debate, and the debate had a format.

They called it the Lincoln-Douglas Format of Debate. I actually got frustrated in the middle of the competitions that I was attending. So when I go to this competition, sometimes I'm last, sometimes I'm fourth. You wonder why. Sometimes you debate and you felt you did good, but when the results come, it appears that you're second, or third, or even fourth. So finally, I was so excited that the very last competition, in that competition that I actually won first.

There was this event that we did in school talent show, where I actually came and performed my traditional dance to the audience. My host family and family friends had come to the event, because they knew I was going to perform. I performed my cultural dance excellent, and on top of that, the whole school I became so popular, when I performed Michael Jackson, that was basically one of the most exciting experience. I came to a school and get through the end of the year, I became so popular in the school. People even wanted to take pictures with me, and it was so awesome. I was basically seen as the most talented dancer in the school. (background cheers of a crowd)

Prom. Prom was like something different. You know, getting to go to a school dance, getting to dress up. It was basically the end of the school year, so you're just like on top. You don't necessarily need to be dating someone to have a date to prom, it's just about asking someone who would also want to go to the dance.

That was quite challenging for me, because who do I ask? I didn't know how it worked, it appeared I had to ask earlier than later. Maybe you think, Okay I performed the dance, I was so popular in school, if I should ask somebody for prom, I could easily get anyone. Not knowing, I had to ask earlier, but you know, it's not about asking the person out for dating, but just for prom.

Then finally, there was one other friend, I spoke to her, and she agreed. And then, my host parents actually got me a black suit and trousers. Now the challenge was how would it match, with the lady's dress. Well this lady's head dress was actually hand sewn by her, black and white, and then pink. I had the black suit already, then I simply just got a white shirt.

For the pink-now, what do we do with the pink? So she actually sewed something like a handkerchief that I could just put in the pocket that was pink, and she-it was the lady that gave me the handkerchief to just match. I think that was one of the greatest experience, and I still have the photos-the pictures.

I expected to see snow, but the experience is quite different. You know to actually feel the cold is different. You know, it got to a point where even my younger siblings would want me to go out with them and would do skiing. Of course, when the snow was beginning to come in, those times, you know, it was not that serious, so I was very excited seeing it, by then you didn't have so much inches of snow.

Then the snow becomes-sometimes it could snow and becomes so high, that even driving out was a problem. It's not cool because sometimes you'd go out and then you'd want to play with your siblings or friends, so then you'd have to back to the car and then enjoy the warmth of the car, and they are outside playing, and sometimes I get so cold that you know, my hands get to hurt me.

I could even be wearing gloves, but I could feel some pain in my fingers. Hard times for me.

Just walking around in the U.S., seeing the beauty, the fact that people-the city is actually clean, that's my one priority. The fact that you see the city clean, without having people being ... you know, littering things all about, I believe that's the first start, because I don't see any development where you still have the city dirty. No matter how beautiful that your buildings may be, no matter how educated your population may be, I don't see any development in any city, community, or any town, if you still have issues with sanitation, so I think that is one of my greatest priorities, to see to it that perhaps we can get people to change their behavior or attitudes towards littering.

There's another project that I'm working on, which is computer literacy for development. Also, to encourage and then promote and teach young children, you know, to have computer skills, basic computer skills, because it will surprise you that up till now, some children or some adults who are even teachers, cannot even put on a computer. They don't know how to do that, and they are teachers in school.

They teach Mathematics, they teach Social Studies, they teach English, they teach other subjects, but they have no idea how to use the computer or the internet. So, we are doing this project to encourage that, where we train the teachers to give them basic skills where it could help their teaching methods. It could help them do some simple research, so that they could present very well in class.

The whole experience has motivated us to do more volunteering, in whichever way we can do. So right now, the ripple event has been that I'm actually running for office in my local community right now, because I have gotten to a point where I feel the local authorities do not do what they are supposed to do. That has gotten me to a point where I'm actually so motivated to take up community leadership, so I want to go into that, and I hope I win that election, coming up very soon.

I'm optimistic because I feel some good must be done, but [inaudible 00:16:54]. I believe I have the skills, I have what it takes to do what must be done. But those who are supposed to do it, they don't do what is supposed to be done. I don't feel scared, because I'm optimistic because if I didn't feel I had the capabilities, or the skills, or the motivation to do it, I see it as things I can do. But I'm not there, so that gives me more energy, I can achieve what I want to do.

5 years from now, I hope to see myself as the community leader that I'm going into the election for, and I hope to be working with the local government in the central government to bring development within just the local community that I live, but I don't see myself anywhere but in my community.

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 statue that created ECA and our stories come from participants of U.S. Government funded international exchange programs.

This week, Inusah reminisced about his time as a Kennedy-Lugar Youth Exchange & 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, 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 a complete episode transcript can be found at our webpage, at eca.state.gov/2233. 

Special thanks to Inusah for sharing his stories. I did the interview and edited this segment. 

Featured music was Bones for Jones by the Clifford Brown Ensemble, Burst of Lighting Cradle Rock by Blue Dot Sessions. The crowd noise you heard, was none other than the moment Inusah hit the stage at the Austin High School Talent Show. 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 44 - Picturing Coffee Farmers and Refugees with Tim McDonnell

LISTEN HERE - Episode 44


How better to document local environmental changes than by handing out cameras to local coffee farmers in Uganda?  Photographer Tim McDonnell ended up not only getting interesting results, he received back a collection worthy of a gallery show. Tim traveled to Uganda as part of the Fulbright-National Geographic Storytelling Fellowship program, for more information please visit: https://blog.nationalgeographic.org/tag/tim-mcdonnell


Chris: You traveled to Africa in order to tell people's stories, about their successes and their struggles. But when you took it a step further, when you found a way to let them tell their own stories to be both subjects and storytellers, you hit on something even more powerful and the results, they speak for themselves, you're listening to 22.33 a podcast of exchange stories.

Tim: Just by chance. I was going to a place in Northern Kenya where it was in a kind of remote area of rural Kenya, Northern Kenya, where there's been some conflict between cattle herders and farmers over land or different groups of cattle, herders, different ethnic groups. They're experiencing drought up there. Sometimes they have conflict over natural resources. It can turn violent or deadly. I was going up there to observe a meeting that was happening between leaders of different ethnic groups that were trying to work out a kind of peace building solution here. 

Anyway, I'm going up to this place and in order to get there I had to take a truck and it just so happened that in order to reach this place you had to pass through a wildlife reserve. I basically had an accidental free safari, which was amazing. There were giraffes, elephants, everything, and I mean, this is sort of like a cliche of Kenya, but I mean it really is. It's amazing, the wildlife. That was one where I was like, this, literally, is my commute to work today that I am just going on this open sided truck through a nature reserve. There are elephants everywhere and that's not even why I'm here. That's just a byproduct of the work that I'm going to do.

Chris: This week, cameras for coffee farmers, commuting with the elephants, and the precious resource of water. Join us on a journey from the United States to East Africa to learn, once again, that a picture is worth at least a thousand words. 

It's 22.33.

Intro Clip 1: (Music) We report what happens in the United States, warts and all.
Intro Clip 2: (Music) These exchanges shaped who I am.
Intro Clip 3: (Music) When you get to know these people they're not quite like you. You read about them. They are people, very much like ourselves and..
Intro Clip 4: (Music) That's what we call cultural exchange.

Tim: I'm Tim McDonald, I'm a multimedia journalist. I grew up in Arizona, but I live now here in Washington DC. In 2016 and 2017 I was a Fulbright National Geographic storytelling fellow in Kenya, Uganda and Nigeria. Working on a series of stories that kind of iterative projects, different kinds of stories for National Geographic and other publications having to do with climate change impacts on food security. Talking a lot with farmers, a lot with agricultural entrepreneurs and scientists and looking at different parts of the food system in those three countries and how they were being affected in different ways by environmental change, and kind of doing stories along the way that looked at different parts of that.

I think some of my best reporting that I did on the trip was in Uganda. That was the second country that I was in. I was there for three months, and I knew going into Uganda that there were basically two stories that I was wanting to focus on that, that really had nothing to do with each other. One was on coffee, Uganda has a huge coffee industry. Millions of people are employed directly or indirectly in that industry in Uganda growing coffee, pushing it through the production chain. Anyway, this is a big story for climate change because, of course, these are all small holder farmers. They're very highly vulnerable to erratic rainfall, drought, and those are all things that they definitely are experiencing increasingly in East Africa, and definitely in Uganda.

I had the benefit of working with... My host organization, that was kind of sponsoring my Fulbright was a research organization called The International Institute of Tropical Agriculture, which has offices all across Africa and does different types of research on commodity crops, including coffee in Uganda is one of their big ones. They were kind of holding my hand through some of this and I got to work closely with their scientists. I was interviewing them about the work that they did. I knew that I was going to have a big feature story for National Geographic on coffee in Uganda, which I did later on. But along the way we came across something that I hadn't planned, a different story, that actually was originally the idea of one of my colleagues at the research institution, which was to take some disposable cameras and give them out to a cohort of coffee farmers in this one particular region of Eastern Uganda and let them photograph their own experience of climate change and see what they come back with. Maybe that would kind of produce some interesting insights or just be a way of kind of looking at this story through a different lens and letting people tell their own side of the story.

We took a dozen cameras, 12 cameras. We gave them out to the male head of household and female head of house in six different households on this mountain called Mt. Elgon in Uganda, which is a big coffee growing place. We wanted to get a kind of gender distribution. We wanted to get a kind of elevation distribution and just let people keep these cameras for, I think we gave them to them for three, four weeks or something, and see what they came back with. I think you find a lot of the times with smallholder farmers, they are very, very sensitive to environmental change. There's no question that something is happening whether or not they understand it in the terms of manmade climate change, the way that scientists might describe it. A lot of them are not really familiar with that technical side of it, but they experience it in a very visceral way. You can get a very interesting side of the story for what their understanding of that issue is.

We left the instructions very vague on purpose. It was not like... We weren't asking people to take pictures of anything in particular. Just what are the changes that you're seeing? What's your kind of experience of climate change, whatever that means to you. We gave them the cameras, they took a lot of pictures. We went back a few weeks later and collected all of the cameras and I... Honestly, my expectation was very low. I thought that maybe if, between the 12 cameras that we gave out, I thought if we got like two or three photos that were decent looking, that would be a success. I mean between the 12... Each camera has like 30 photos, there's 12 cameras, so there's hundreds of pictures that I was looking at. I was totally amazed by the quality of images that came back. I mean, some of them are sort of low quality because they're not very good cameras. They're cheap plastic disposable cameras. But the artistry and the lens that people were using and the types of things that they chose to focus on, I found very interesting. And the photos actually just aesthetically, as pieces of art, were very beautiful.

As an outsider, I felt like a window into a side of everyday life on this coffee growing mountain that there's no way that I would have been able to photograph myself. People were taking pictures of, of course, their farms was a big thing, so farm labor, but also people were taking a lot of photos of the kind of road network, I know it was a big thing, and rural infrastructure. Because coffee, it's a cash crop, so getting it to market is a huge part of the challenge and dealing with really bad roads and the kind of lack of a good market infrastructure is one of the things that people really think about a lot. That came out in the photos.

We were also very interested to see whether there were differences between men and women in the types of photos that they took. I know that... One case, at least, we discovered later that the husband in the household had actually just taken both cameras and done all the photos on all of them. I don't know, that was like learning experience in and of itself. One thing I noticed was that, between the men and the women, was actually that there was a lot of commonality between them and that it was not at all the sort of stereotype of gender roles where maybe men are taking pictures of the farm field and women are taking pictures of the children at home or something like that. It was, everyone is kind of doing all jobs. We had a lot of photos that were coming from men which, as I said, were about sending children to school. We had photos of women working in their own coffee fields.

There actually was a lot of crossover between them, which I think speaks to the extent to which this small scale coffee industry in Uganda is really a family affair. Everyone is doing all jobs and each household has its own set of coffee trees. It's really a family business. Everyone is involved with every aspect of it. As a community they're all working together to pool resources to get the coffee from this remote village and to, I mean, eventually to Kampala where it gets put on a ship and sent to here or Europe or wherever.

Another thing I found so interesting in a lot of the photos was a theme of education that came out a lot. A lot of pictures of school, of kids going to school, getting dressed for school. When we went back later and talked to people about, "What's the story behind this photo..." Again, coffee being a cash crop. Well then you ask people, "What are you spending the money on that you get from coffee?" "Education." That's the thing that comes up time and again. They're using the money from coffee to send their kids to school. When you talk about what's the impact of a drought on your coffee farm, the thing that a lot of people are thinking of is it means that, "One or more of my kids is not going to go to school this year." That was what we found in a lot of different families was that kids, after a bad coffee year, which they had the year that I was there, a lot of kids are not going to school that year. Anyway, I never would've thought to ask that question. You get these very interesting connections.

I was so impressed by the kind of visual quality of these photos that I thought it would be really cool to try to display them publicly somewhere. I selected, I think three or four pictures, from each farmer's camera, and then we reached out to... Well first I reached out to the U.S. Embassy because I knew they had an interest in possibly helping Fulbrighters do kind of local public engagement with the work that they were doing. The cultural affairs officer who I was in touch with there was super helpful. They had this great idea of getting in touch with one of their contacts at Makerere University, which is a big university in Uganda. They have a very beautiful art museum on the campus. They reached out to their contact there and managed to negotiate something where I could set up all these pictures as a display in the art gallery for several weeks. I got all these pictures printed up and hung them all in the gallery and that was really cool.

We had some little note cards that were on the wall explaining what the project was about. Then, as a kind of capstone to this, which actually just by sheer coincidence happened to be on my very last day in Uganda, we just managed to fit it in right at the end, we had a little seminar and brought in scientists from the research organization. I was there and we even managed to bring Sam who was one of the coffee farmers from the very top of the mountain, who was just a really amazing character. Very insightful guy. Talked a lot about this education issue, a kind of local community leader who had a lot of thoughts about climate change as well. Brought him down to Kampala and we had a little panel discussion, a little cocktail party. I don't think there were cocktails actually, but a little party, anyway, with people, like a gallery opening. It was so cool.

Sam, the one farmer that we managed to bring down to see the gallery showing, he was very interested in the way that you could use these photos to do kind of community level education on farming techniques because he was looking at some of the pictures from other farmers, and he knows all these people because it's a pretty small community. I remember him looking at some of the pictures and saying, "Oh why is he have his tree is like this way. You can see this tree is clearly dying but I can see it because he hasn't done this certain thing properly." I think he was looking at it as a way of, "We could maybe use this visual media to spread the word about climate adapted agriculture practices." Because Sam, he's a big reader. He tries to stay up on all the latest agricultural science and trying to innovate different ways of withstanding drought and dealing with their environmental conditions. I think that he saw these photos as a way of, kind of, spreading the gospel of better agricultural practices, which I thought was cool. Not something that I would've ever thought of, that they could actually be a tool for local education purposes for other farmers. I think that was something that was really interesting to him about that. Yeah.

For me, this project was a really cool opportunity to experiment with different ways of doing multimedia and doing a kind of collaborative multimedia process that involves journalists and scientists and the characters that both of those groups are working on trying to research in different ways. I probably would not have pursued this project without the support of Fulbright and without the support of my host organization, which brought this idea to fruition and gave the resources to allow it to happen. I think it expanded my mind in terms of what's possible when you are able to work with a more diverse group of participants and also ways in which you can bring the people who are in your stories more into the process of helping to tell their own narrative so that it's not so much of this sort of outside looking in thing which you have so much in foreign correspondence, but a way to actually bring people in and using their own voices to tell the story. I would love to be able to do something like that again in the future. It was really, really exciting thing to work on.

As a journalist, you interview people, you photograph them, you form relationships with people. They are talking to you about intimate details of their life. You go and write a story about those things, it goes out into the world. Sometimes you stay in touch with those people and you get some kind of feedback on the thing that you have written about them. But a lot of the times you don't, especially when you're dealing with issues that are affecting very rural populations like climate and agriculture tends to be something that's happening in rural areas. People don't have very good network connectivity, so it's not always very easy to stay in touch with people after you leave the area. That means that you don't really have a good way of sharing the story with the people that it's about. You don't have a good way of getting feedback from them.

But what was cool about this coffee thing, this cameras project, was that we were working with them several times over the course of a few months. We brought them in for this exhibition, so there was a lot of feedback that got to happen, which was so interesting for me to get to share the story with the people that it was about. They think it's cool because it's their photos that are hanging in the gallery. They never have thought that that was going to happen. Totally minds blown on all sides. Yeah, just a really awesome kind of experience that never would've happened in another way. Yeah.

Well the coffee farms of Uganda are incredibly beautiful. I mean, this mountain, Mt. Elgon, where we were working is sort of this misty magical place. I mean, I really just wanted to drop everything and just move there and give it all up and just work on the farm for rest of my life. I could easily see that happening. Yeah, it was a really incredible experience, and then had a very interesting pivot because in between, in the midst of working on all this coffee stuff, which was sort of... I mean, okay, they're dealing with drought, they're dealing with a lot of environmental problems, but in a way it's also sort of very bucolic, this sort of idyllic lifestyle. I mean, despite the challenges that people have, they love doing this work. I mean, I didn't meet... I met people who had issues that they were dealing with, but overall, people love the places that they're from. They love doing this kind of coffee work. It's very personal. They are often working on trees, the same coffee trees that their great grandfathers planted generations ago. There's a deep love for that. In that sense it's a kind of happy story.

But in the midst of working on all this coffee stuff, I also took some time to work on the second story that I was interested in Uganda, which was the South Sudanese refugee crisis that's happening in the northern part of the country, which at the time that I was there, it was the world's fastest growing refugee population. South Sudanese people fleeing truly horrible conflict in their country, which is just across the northern border of Uganda. They had, at the time that I was there, up to 5,000 people per day, refugees, coming across the border into Uganda. A couple of million people that are there living in settlements now. That was a very different type of experience for me to see from all the coffee farms, obviously. Not as happy of a story, although one that similarly you find a lot of threads of incredible resilience and fortitude, perseverance, creativity, really incredible stories that were there.

I had one of the more profound cultural realizations or kind of reckoning of my own privilege as a westerner in that experience because I was working on, specifically, the issue of water access, which was a big problem. All these refugees are coming into a part of Uganda, which unlike the coffee growing regions is very dry, very arid. It had a very low population density prior to this refugee crisis. Very few people. I mean people were living there, but it's really where you're starting to move more from this kind of tropical savanna type African landscape into a desert.

Water access was a big issue. You can just imagine you have 5,000 people per day coming into a place. There's no water pipes. They don't have wells. There's no way to get water for anyone. The humanitarian agencies that were working there, water access was really the number one thing that they are working on. It was very obvious that that was the case when you got to the settlement because you could see lines of people, 100 people in line, for one water pump. People would be waiting all day with a single can of water that they're supposed to supply their whole family's needs for washing, drinking, cooking and everything with this one can. They have to wait all day in the line for that. Most of the water, actually, was coming directly out of the Nile River, which was not far from there. They have pumps that pull it out, they treat it so that it's drinkable and then they put it in big tanks and people... but they're moving it in trucks. It's really slow. There's no way they can supply all the people. To me that story really stood out.

I was following one woman, Leah [Jogo 00:22:21], who was a widowed grade school teacher, a refugee, who had come from South Sudan who I met in one of these lines for water and followed her on camera for a few days as she was dealing with this water problem. I ended up making a short film that kind of follows one day of her waiting in line for water. We did that story for NPR. I just remember this one day after spending the whole day with her, she has this five gallon or so water can that she is... She has several children, some of whom are hers, some of whom are orphaned children that she's picked up along the way caring for all of them. They're all trying to supply themselves out of this one water can. Well, later that day I went back to the hotel where I was staying, which was rundown rural terrible hotel that also lacked running water, but they brought in a can of water for me to use to shower and everything. It was the very same yellow jerry can that everyone in the refugee settlement had been using that day. The exact same one.

It was just so shocking to me. I mean, I was feeling very dusty, dirty, gross after having been sweating and running around all day and I took a shower and I had used more than half of the can by the end. That to me was... it really put into perspective what people are dealing with here. I don't know, it sounds maybe trite or something, I mean, that it took that for me to have that realization, but you can see what people are doing through, but until you experience it yourself. I'm not comparing my own experience to theirs, but that was just a very interesting intersection for me and a very profound moment that I think really put this issue into perspective.

Between that reporting and the coffee work that I was doing, I was very proud of the work that I did there actually. I think those stories came out really well. In both cases, I had the opportunity to share the stories back with the people that they were about, which I was really happy about. Yeah. That work that I did in Uganda, I think, with some of the best that I did as a Fulbrighter.

I had done reporting trips abroad before, but only in a kind of one off way where you do all the planning from your desk in DC or New York and then you go abroad for like two, three weeks, you do a story and then you come back. This was a case where I was doing all of the logistical planning myself. Everything from just finding drivers, finding translators, figuring out what you can eat, how you're going to get your own drinking water when you're up there, and what to wear, and how to deal with the camera equipment that I had, and dealing with security issues, making sure that I wasn't going to go someplace that was dangerous or how to kind of manage risk in that way. All very much learning experience for me in this.

All these stories, whether it was going to the world's most beautiful small coffee farm and having a great day, like hanging out with farmers or a more challenging reporting experience in Northern Uganda or when I went to Nigeria next, in the Northeast of Nigeria where Boko Haram has been active, which was also a very challenging reporting environment to work in. I was there for about 10 days. The training that we kind of gave ourselves, through Fulbright, was incredibly useful. There's no way that I would've felt comfortable dealing with all the logistics of everything. I think in terms of how to go about the actual business of doing foreign correspondence as a freelancer was very much aided by all the experiences that I had on Fulbright.

As a person, I think I also grew a lot from the experience. I mean, I got to form a lot of close relationships with people while I was over there, and just spending so much time... You get a different view of a country, I think, when you spend enough time over there that you have the opportunity to kind of become bored. What I mean by that is, sometime if you're traveling someplace for a very short amount of time, you can spend the whole time that you're over there dealing with jet lag, everything is completely overwhelming and your mind is blown and everything is new and fresh. You stay there for two weeks and then you leave. You have this kind of rose colored vision of everything.

But when I was in countries and staying for several months at a time, you get past that point, then you kind of reach another hump where you have a more low key version of what's happening. You, kind of, have a chance to step back, and I think you see things in a different way when your mind slows down a little bit. You have days when you're there where you have nothing to do, and maybe the power goes out. You just walk around your neighborhood and that's it. All of those things, I think I got a chance to just really experience these places in a deep way that was really fascinating and had a lot of effect on me. I mean, definitely did not, at all, quench my desire to work abroad, particularly in Africa. Always looking for excuses to go back and I'm sure that I'll be spending more time there in the future, as well.

This Fulbright was very special because of the collaboration that happened with National Geographic. We did amazing working seminars with some of their photographers and staff writers and other people and got to make... I have contacts, good friends, who are still there working for the magazine, working for other parts of the media organization, working for the National Geographic Society, which is the nonprofit arm that the Fulbright team works under there. That was just a really incredible experience and I'm so glad that these two organizations were able to get together and pool resources because it's really cool and it's a very unique opportunity for young storytellers of different stripes.

Chris: 22.33 is produced by the Collaboratory, and 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. Our stories come from participants of the US government funded international exchange programs.

This week, Tim McDonald shared stories from his time as a Fulbright National Geographic fellow. For more about the Fulbright National Geographic Fellowship and other ECA exchange programs, checkout eca.state.gov. We also encourage you to subscribe to 22.33, you can do that wherever you get your podcasts, and leave us a nice rating while you're at it. We'd also love to hear from you. You can write to ecacollaboratory@state.gov that's E-C-A-C-O-L-L-A-B-O-R-A-T-O-R-Y@state.gov. Or you can check us out at eca.state.gov/22.33.

Special thanks this week to Tim for sharing stories from his time in Africa. Anna Maria Sinitean and I did the interview, and I edited this episode. 

Featured music was Grand Caravan, Mercurial Vision, Thirteens, and Surly Bonds all by the Blue Dot Sessions and From Truth by Dexter Britain. 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 43 - The Barefoot Route of Rūta with Rūta Beinoriūtė.

LISTEN HERE - Episode 43


Lithuanian Rūta Beinoriūtė threw herself into her expat experience in the United States, both professionally and socially, leaving a positive mark on those whose paths she crossed.  A dream come true, you say?  For sure--at least in the case of one bizarre recurring dream she's had since childhood. Rūta visited the United States as part of the Exchange Visitor Program, for more information please visit: https://j1visa.state.gov/programs.


Chris: Ever since you were a child, you had a recurring dream and when you came to America, your dream came true. But then thankfully, and let's not forget that you are full of thanks, lots more happened as well. 

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

Rūta: So one day it was a beautiful fall morning. It was still warm. So in my house we have a beautiful patio. So I go out since the patio is just right aside, I just have shorts on, T-shirt, no shoes. And I go out and somehow my doors got locked back to the house and first I'm kind of laughing. I'm like "Haha, it's such a Rūta thing." I say. But then I look at my phone and it has like 16% of battery and I text my roommates and they're at work. One works in Bethesda, that's far, one works in Dupont Circle and has a meeting. And I'm like "Hmm." And I have a meeting later in that day and then I realize, oh my God, I have no shoes. I cannot even go anywhere. Okay. It's like, how do I get out of here?

My roommate texted that he's gonna try to leave after the meeting right away. So he said if you can make it to my work, I'll give you keys. I call an Uber, I get on an Uber hey, sorry, I have no shoes on. They don't seem to care at all. But finally was the moment where I go to Dupont Circle, which is the most central place of D.C., and I get out of Uber. I have no shoes, dirty t-shirt and shorts, and everyone is around with suits, right? Luckily I go there, I sit down and I get my keys right away. I call Uber. My phone dies on Uber already. So I get home and I make it to the meeting that day. But the funniest thing I think why I still laugh about this story is that I have this recurring dream in my life where I go somewhere and I have no shoes. So I would say, oh, I had this dream when I was in school, I would leave to school with no shoes. Now I have dreams where I leave the airport with no shoes and I'm like, I don't know what it means and this happens. So I laugh and I say, oh, I can probably say that my dreams came true in America.

Chris: This week. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Aspiring to go slow and meeting your human rights heroes. Join us on a journey from Lithuania to Washington, D.C. and following the "routa" of Rūta. 

It's 22.33.

Intro Clip 1: (Music) We report what happens in the United States, warts and all.
Intro Clip 2: (Music) These exchanges shaped who I am.
Intro Clip 3: (Music) When you get to know these people, they're not quite like you read about them. They are people very much like ourselves, and [crosstalk 00:03:12]
Intro Clip 4: (Music) That's what we call cultural exchange. Oh yes.

Rūta: My name is Rūta Beinoriūtė and I come from Lithuania and I'm here part of a professional internship program administrated by Council on International Educational Exchange, CIE. And I work here as a legal fellow at International Bar Association and I work on human rights issues and documenting human rights abuses in North Korea and it's detention centers.

I was a human rights advocate and news janky since I was probably eight or nine year old and I have proof of that. I have recently, like two years ago I found my school diary in which we had to put our dreams and I found one note of where I said, I dream of a world where everyone are friends and I explicitly said I want Americans and Afghanis be friends and I want Lithuanians to be friends with everyone else. Mind you, that was 2002. Clearly I was watching too much news and I was just dreaming of peace, but it's more about I guess a coexistence, which I still believe in. When I found that note, and I was showing it to my mom and I was like, look mom, I'm in the right path because I'm studying journalism right now. This is it. This is a good start of my career that I kind of pre-determined when I was little in primary school.

When I arrived I had this question in my mind, do I even speak English? Because sometimes the most difficult moments were in the very beginning where I would go to a restaurant or I would go to a store and people would be asking me questions, especially when ordering food. Oh do you want this on a side or do you want this ingredient? And I would be like, what are these words? You face different accents. That's another challenge. I always remembered the first time ordering a bagel, where they right away ask you plain, everything or sesame seeds and you're like, what? I just want a bagel. But I kind of figured it out by now. Funny enough, my friend was visiting from Lithuania and she was ordering a bagel and she got the same question and she turned to me looking confused and I was like, I gotcha girl. You take everything bagel with cream cheese.

I've heard a lot people say, oh, Americans are too nice or they're fake. There is actually an interesting story how all the Baltic American Freedom Foundation fellows, we met for enrichment trip in Nashville and we had a workshop where we were in different groups and we had bunch of words there and we had to put five most important values and five least important rallies to Americans and that's from our perspective. Some things different like education. Some groups put it as most important, some as least important. The one thing I think we all put as least important was honesty. This workshop was guided by an American person and she was just trying to understand why. She was like, why do you think Americans are not honest and everyone had kind of the same argument. Oh, Americans would just say, hey, how are you, and they just run away.

They close the door and you're just there standing saying hey good and no one's listening. She actually did a good explanation, which I think changed my perception on that. Is that it's just the way we say hello sometimes in Lithuania and that would be "laba diena", it's like good day. Or good morning is "labas rytas", it's two words, right? So that's the American way of saying hello. So it's just more words. It doesn't mean sometimes they want to hear the answer. Sometimes they do really want to hear an answer and I usually do give an answer. And I usually get an answer back. I feel like my experience is completely different and I find Americans being very kind, very friendly, very encouraging people. That was definitely an assumption that seemed to be right before coming and it changed. I feel like the smiles I get from Americans, I don't see them as fake. I see them as very honest and I think it even encourages me to smile more.

One of the things I learned, and I would love more people to learn, is to say thank you. Americans love saying thank you. It's like thank you before you did something, thank you for while doing that and thank you after. It's funny cause sometimes I was even telling my boss, Michael, how nice it is that people say thank you to their bus drivers.

When I arrived, I was also always thinking, oh, did I say thank you? Like in my mind I would be worried. I was like, oh, did I say thank you? Did I say thank you? So there was a moment where my boss was saying congratulations on something and then I go back to my desk and I sit there and I'm like, oh, did I say thank you? And I go back and I say, Hey Michael, I don't know if I said thank you, but thank you. And he was laughing and saying, yeah, you did say thank you. I was like, I just don't want to seem like I'm rude, but I want to say thank you. So I feel like I learned that for sure, to say thank you so many times it doesn't cost you anything. Right? But it just makes things better.

Another very American thing I'd say, which I really like is saying thank you for your service for people in public office or veterans or rescue departments. I feel like that's very nice and I like to say that too to people that I think are doing important stuff too.

What is becoming more popular across the world is the movement of slowing down, and I think I learned about this last year while writing my thesis. I came across this term of slow TV. That's a thing in Norway. They broadcast that seven hour long train ride from one city to Oslo and surprisingly enough many Norwegians tuned in to watch that. And then there are more things, right? Slow journalism, slow food, slow travel is a thing now and when I arrived here I noticed that people are in a rush here and I noticed myself, I'm in a rush and I've worked in a really relaxed office. I'd say my office is really relaxed. There is not that many stressful moments. Sometimes I feel like I'm anxious for no reason for like, oh, I have to run, I have to run. So I would definitely bring that thing. I think just slow down, have a work life balance. I would say that's very European thing as well as being bored. Like that program of train ride has many probably hours where you get bored, but I like how the producers were saying that kind of represents our life. Sometimes we we're bored and that's okay.

So first when you start playing soccer, you have to learn to call it soccer, right? When you come from Europe, that's when you know you've got it right when you don't call it football anymore. I arrived here and I was talking to my roommate saying I want to play some soccer, and he said, oh DC has a lot of social leagues that I can enroll. So I just sign up for one social league, and funny enough I was randomly picking teams and I saw a name Hot Potato. If anything, that's the closest to me because Lithuanians eat a lot of potatoes. I'm like, I'm going to go for this. And it was the best decision I've made so far in here. So I was the only one outsider coming in. So I come to the first practice, then I say, Hey, I'm going to play with you guys.

And I mean since then I feel like I'm part of that team and now I'm gonna leave and they're saying, hey, we're going to miss you. But soccer is super fun to play here. We are really bad at playing soccer I'd say, but we're the most social team on the league and I feel that's the real meaning of that game. I did not really know how to play soccer that well. I had to learn a lot of things here. I feel like playing with the Americans is pretty nice because everyone's, maybe it's because it's socially. After the game, even when we lose zero to eight, we just say good game, good game. And we're so happy anyway. We're like, we really tried hard. So I'd say we're more American way of playing soccer, at least in Miley is more optimistic, we're not sad after losing the game.

I think while being here in Washington, D.C. some of the greatest things that I experienced was going to a lot of events that take place here. Sometimes these events were with people that I maybe wrote about in my thesis or organizations like Freedom House that I kind of rallied while doing my research. And then I sit here in D.C. and I get a email saying join us for report lounge and I get to go there and sit and listen to them. And these are the moments where you sit down and are like, well this is the place where I want to be, these are the issues I care about. And these issues are ranging from human rights, such as minority rights. But mostly it's about for me, freedom of expression and media freedom. And I think being here in the states, it's a perfect place to realize the importance of media.

United States has such a strong, I'd say culture and strong traditions and things like rule of law, democracy, media, so it's the perfect place to understand these values and how strong they are. So it always makes me fight for these values even more just because what's happening in Europe now in certain countries like Hungary, what we see with media happen, it kind of worries me and I'm concerned about my country. So being here I kind of get that strength of independence of media and how strong we have to defend it. So I'd say these areas while being here are the ones that I'm like, Oh this is my passion, this is something I would want to work on.

I got to attend Oslo Freedom Forum that was in New York and for anyone who works in the area of human rights, I'd say that's a pretty high level conference and I knew that Garry Kasparov, a Russian human rights activist and a former wall chess champion, is going to be there. And I was like, oh, it's going to be so interesting just to listen to him talk and see him live cause he's quite a figure even in Nolan and back Lithuania, right? So I was really happy when I arrived at that event and just before the event started he was just walking around the conference area, hanging out, talking to people and I was like that's the moment I should go and say thank you, thank you as we do it in America. So I go up to him and I introduced myself, I shake hands and it's a really proud moment. You know this person and it's not just you, your parents know who this is. And we had a short conversation about the Lithuania cause he's great a friend of Lithuania too. And we shake hands, we take a picture and I send a picture to my office saying on Friday I achieved a lot in this conference before it even started.

I do feel optimistic in not only thinking of about Lithuania, I had experience in Turkey, the internship that I did there, I saw my supervisor being in prison for the work he does. You know when you see people like that you were like these are the right, these are the true human rights defenders. And these are the people that inspire you. I met a lot of people like that here in D.C., since I've worked on North Korea, there were like North Korean defectors that I got to meet probably anywhere. There's not no place like Washington D.C. that also would have so many people that not necessarily have any connection to North Korea, but they're so passionate to to work on these issues and help these people living there. So this makes me very optimistic.

You get to meet people who are in such a risk of doing their work, like human rights defenders. I got to meet the lawyer from Sudan who works now as a refugee in Uganda and he was before I detained and in prison because of the work and he still is doing that work. And you meet those people and you're like, wow, if they don't give up, fight for that, like how can you?

And now especially with the technology, it's going to be harder for bad guys to get away with crimes that they do. I have a lot of hope and optimism because of that. There is satellite imageries that show crimes against humanity. There are apps like even IBA has an app of eyewitness where you can record a crime that you see. There are flash drives smuggled into North Korea to bring in information because of development of technology. We get to do this and I feel like it's not going to go back. It's just gonna go forward. The time of the silence is gone and now the bad guys will have to be accountable for whatever they do in the future.

I always have this internal argument with myself. I do love Lithuania and I have this Lithuanian heart, but my mind is always somewhere outside, right? Like it's global mind. I think about cases, I'm concerned about human rights defenders or journalists being in jailed in Turkey. I'm concerned about people dying in North Korea or anywhere else in the world. When you tried to compile those to human rights issues and love to your own country, sometimes it is hard to see like where's the area you could help, but if I ever go back to journalism, that might be an answer. You can write about things that are happening in North Korea or Turkey or Venezuela or you name it Hungary, but also somehow contribute to your own country's knowledge. In the longterm. I see myself working for organizations that are defending journalists themselves. Even though I'm very optimistic about future, I don't think there's going to be a point where we don't need them anymore.

When I close my eyes, I definitely see Bloomingdale, the neighborhood I live. The most beautiful neighborhood in D.C. that I'm a little subjective on this point cause it's my neighborhood too. But it has these beautiful Victorian style houses that are all types of colors and I just keep taking pictures and keep taking pictures of these houses. And for me that's the view of D.C. And of course squirrels. If I close my eyes, I see squirrels running around and I didn't know but I'm afraid of squirrels. And I found out that I should be. Sometimes they get a little too aggressive, in places like Grand Canyon, we were told if they bite you you have to get a rabies shot. Some people have assumption that they are friendly and nice animals. They are maybe in some other countries like Lithuania, where they're afraid of people. Here in D.C. they just feel like your friend hanging out on your patio.

I found out here that my name Rūta in Spanish means proud. That's the most beautiful meaning of my name that I've heard. Cause I like to think about my life as a route, and even my Instagram bio now says from a route of Rūta.

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. In our stories come from participants of the US government funded international exchange programs.

This week Rūta Beinoriūtė discussed her time in the United States as part of the private sector professional internship program. For more about private sector and other ECA exchange programs, check out eca.state.gov. 

We encourage you to subscribe to 22.33, and you can leave us a nice review while you're at it and we would 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 a complete episode transcript can be found at our webpage at eca.state.gov/22.33. 

Special thanks this week to Rūta for her stories. I did the interview and edited this segment. 

Featured music was "Lapilatsa" by Gustaba, "Corchency" by Jazz Friends, and "Sly Bonds", "Seamless" and "Donnelly" 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 42 - [Bonus] The Romanian Stairmaster

LISTEN HERE - Episode 42


When Stephen Guice took a teaching assignment and moved his large young family to communist Romania he was sure that it would be difficult—especially for the kids—to go without so many of comforts and products they were used to.  What he didn’t anticipate was that, by learning to do more with much less, they would have the time of their lives. Stephen visited Romania as part of the Fulbright program, for more information please visit: https://us.fulbrightonline.org.


Chris: You expected that when you moved from Middle America to Lasi, Romania your lifestyle might become more modest. And you were right. But it wasn't as you'd had to go without. You were living there with your wife and five young children. But during a year when there was a lot you could not find the one inexhaustible resource was joy. You never stopped having fun.

You're listening to 2233. A podcast of exchange stories.

Stephen: And my oldest was nine and when we came over people wanted only to eat name brand cereals. I could not buy Kroger honey nut Cheerios, I had to buy General Mills honey nut Cheerios. They were picky. Well after a short while in Romania in 1994 where there wasn't a lot to choose from, I would bring home a box of Iranian Corn Flakes labeled Taste of the West my children would squeal with excitement. Mix it quick, get the powder milk. Let's make some powdered milk and have Corn Flakes right now.

Chris: This week the joy of Iranian Corn Flakes, getting vaccinated for the plague, and Coca-Cola for the masses. Join us on a journey from Detroit, Michigan to Lasi, Romania to discover that less truly is more.

It's 22.33.

Intro Clip 1: (Music) We report what happens in the United States. Warts and all.
Intro Clip 2: (Music) These exchanges shape to who I am.
Intro Clip 3: (Music) And when you get to know these people that aren't quite like you. You read about them. There are people that are much like ourselves.
Intro Clip 4: (Music) And Oh that's what we call considerate change. Oh yes.

Stephen: I went with my father and my family to Peru in 1959. 1959 Peru was a very, very different place than Detroit, which is where I came from. We had to get, we sort of got a clue in on how different it was when we had to get plague vaccinations before going down. When we went by trains through the Andes and we saw piles and piles of coffins from the smallpox epidemic. So very, very different experience.   

My name is Stephen Guise. I'm currently the chief of policy and evaluation for the Bureau of Educational Cultural Affairs. Fast forward a few years and 1994 I was an academic. I was Professor of Linguistics at University of Memphis and I went on a Fulbright myself and took my family with me to Lasi, Romania.  

I was a Fulbright lecturer, teaching linguistics and English as a second language methodology in Alexandru Ion Cuza University in Lasi, Romania. In 1994 Romania was rough.  

When you go into a grocery store in the United States and you see 85 types of cereal. If, you go to another culture where there is no. There's nothing and then you see one type of cereal. You do sort of... It does have an affect where you go why are people in my home freaking out about whether they got a particular brand of tennis shoes or whether they have this shirt versus that shirt. And you know, they have a shirt. They have a choice of shirts. They should really be happy.

We had gotten to Lasi where we were staying, and we had already, maybe we had been there about five weeks, maybe six weeks, and we were trying to... Well, I should say we were shopping for pillows, but we weren't really shopping for pillows 'cause there was no place to shop for pillows. There was a story that sold flower pots and fabric and it sometimes had orange juice. So, if you went by that store and saw orange juice there was orange juice, otherwise there wasn't orange juice. We had been looking for the whole time for pillows 'cause I had five children there, and we had zero pillows, and the kids were getting tired of sleeping on rolled up blankets or something. We were walking out in the city, and I found a store had pillows in the window.

And again it's funny talking in an American context but over there everybody knows, you have a bag with you and you're on the lookout for whatever you're going to buy. Every pillow in the store, I bought. They had six pillows. I bought six pillows. They only had six pillows. I bought all six.

And so I got these six enormous pillows, and we're still kind of walking in the city. So I say, "Okay, I'm going to catch a cab back to the apartment, and I'll take the pillows back and then I'll come back to where you guys are." So I get a cab, and I ride... It's a few blocks... This is pennies. I'm paying pennies for the cab, but I ride... I take the cab back to the apartment and I'm going to get out of the cab and the guy says "Do you want me to wait for you?" And I go like "What? You trying to rip me off? You're going to sit here and I'm going to pay you to sit here and wait for me? No. Give me a break." And I walk up to the apartment and then my American brain clicks in. The cab would have waited for me and it's probably costing twenty cents to have him wait, but I had switched over to the Romanian economy, so the notion of what kind of thief are you. Going to make me wait. You're going to wait for me, yeah. Twenty cents. What?

Hiking up to the monastery on the town, on the hill above the town. You would not have, maybe some people in America would, I think I would have at the time. Not thought of let's go for a hike as a family. But we started walking everywhere. We didn't have a car so we started walking everywhere and so hiking up, but with a large group of people up there picnicking and enjoying the mountain top and the orchards around the monastery. That was a very Romanian thing to do that I think we've incorporated. It's become a part of who we are.

We had friends who would come over. Romanian folks would come over and they would. We would make a sandwich and they would make a sandwich and they would use about three inches of jelly on the sandwich and you would go through a whole jar of jelly with their kids having sandwiches. And you would go "What the heck?" And they'd say "Oh. We don't have jelly." But it showed me something about the kind of society and I think it's changed, but at that point through the Chousheciv years. People sort of had. You had nothing or you had something present or if you had something present you would have to eat it quickly and you had to eat all of it you could because you weren't going to see jelly again.

I mean there was a schedule for water when I was there and a schedule for hot water. Officially we had hot water on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 6 AM to 10 AM, but in fact it was gone by 7:15.

It was interesting when we were there 'cause we would see the real discovery process of how to walk into democracy, how to walk things out in 91, there was just nothing. When I was there in May of 91 so I told my kids there will be no Coca-Cola. There will be no candy bars. There is nothing. You can't find anything. When we got there, and there was Coca-Cola all over the place and there was candy bars all over the place but it was really positive 'cause what it was Nasi entrepreneurship where people couldn't... If you had expensive things people couldn't have bought it but people were finding the money to get a 15 cent Coke. And so, just normal people could start selling Cokes or could start selling Mars Bars, or could start selling ice cream. And so, for the first time normal people without connections in Romania and its play and they used to joke that the Communist Party of Romania was [Romaninan language]. And in Romania they joked that it stood for connections, family, and relations.

So, everything had been done through this corrupt system where everybody you knew who somebody who got this, who got the deal for you and therefore you could do that and you would pay the bribe to that guy so you could do that. But now you had people selling Cokes and people selling Mars Bars and common ordinary people were actually making a living and were doing something. And that was very cool to see. And being there kind of on the ground floor of that was exciting.

We didn't have internet. We didn't have a phone. We didn't have a car, but we had a blast. We walked everywhere. I read to the kids every night. The kids loved it. They had the best time in the world. I remember one time I was coming home, and I walked like three miles and I had bags full of vegetables and stuff and I came to our apartment where we had the shaft, but we didn't have an elevator in the shaft. We just had an open shaft and I was walking up six flights to our apartment. And I was, a part of me was going "This is a pain. Here I'm walking home this distance. Here I am walking up these stairs and I've got all these heavy groceries."

And I thought to myself "Well, you know. I know a lot of people who'd pay for a health club membership and their on a stair climb. Or where they're going absolutely nowhere and they're lifting little weights that mean nothing." Well, I have real potatoes and real cabbage for my family and I'm on real stairs going up stairs, so look at that. It's a health club, only for free.

Chris: 22.33 is produced by the Collaboratory, an initiative within the United States Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, better known as ECA. My name is Christopher Wurst, 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.

In this episode, Stephen Guise shared his experiences as a full bright scholar. For more about ECA exchanges, including full bright programs, check out eca.state.gov. You can also write to us at ECA Collaboratory at state.gov.

You can find 22.33 wherever you get your podcasts, and when you find it subscribe.

Special thanks this week to Stephen for his recollections of Romania. I did the interview and edited this episode. 

Featured music during the segment was "El Huelto De Mi Amada" by Oscar Avelez with a handful of traditional Romanian gypsy music thrown in for good measure. 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 41 - On a Quest for Duende with Carla Canales

LISTEN HERE - Episode 41


Classically-trained opera soprano Carla Canales is used to performing on the world’s largest stages. But as she travels the world sharing her music as an American Arts Envoy, she finds the joy shared between diverse people and cultures is more powerful than standing ovations, and that the place she must sing from is not her diaphragm, but her heart. For more information about the U.S. Arts Envoy program please visit: https://www.worldlearning.org/program/arts-envoy-program.


Chris: As a professional opera soprano, you grew up perfecting a high art form both incredibly difficult and technically precise. But when you wandered offstage down a dusty Mexican street and into a group of friendly kids, perhaps you found your true calling, and that maybe the highest form of art exists in the heart. It was the beginning of your lifelong quest for duende. You're listening to 22.33, a podcast of exchange stories.

Carla: As much as I really, really admire politicians and diplomats that are out there doing the hard work every day, what I've gotten to see firsthand is when a politician gets up in front of a group, the group generally thinks he's asking for something. He or she is going to ask for a check, maybe, or my vote, or what have you. 

But when an artist gets up in front of a group, generally, people think they're going to give us something. They're going to give us a song, they're going to show us their painting, maybe give us a piece of their soul. And that is why it's so critical for us to be working together. That's why I believe the artists should be at the table next to the politicians, the diplomats, because it's very powerful when you can approach a group and say, "Let's come together. Let's do this not just at the level of the intellect, but at the level of the heart and soul."

To me, the importance of culture is that it is through culture that we can examine and contemplate and perhaps even change our belief systems. That's what culture is, ultimately. It's a way of thinking, it's a belief system, and I think if you don't have artists as a part of that conversation, it's very, very difficult to build trust with communities. It is ultimately about coming together, creating a common belief system, and a common way of thinking that two parties that might be different in their thinking can agree on and forging a path forward.

Chris: This week, helping by listening, courage and vulnerability, and creating moments of authenticity. Join us on a journey from the United States around the world, and not being afraid to say the word, "love." It's 22.33.

Intro Clip 1: (Music) We report what happens in the United States, warts and all.
Intro Clip 2: (Music) These exchanges shaped who I am.
Intro Clip 3: (Music) 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 ...
Intro Clip 4: (Music) Oh, that's what we call cultural exchange. Oh, yeah.

Carla: I don't know, I also really thought it was cool to have a powerful voice, right, because opera singing is without a microphone most of the time, so it's like-
Child: Oh my god.
Carla: Like we try to make our voices really loud, right? Do you guys want me to show you?
Children: Yes!
Carla: Okay, so I could just go like ... (singing) That's a light sound, but if I were to do opera style, I'd do like ... (singing) I'd cut through and make a loud sound. Does that make sense?
Children: Yeah.
Carla: Do you guys all wanna just really quick pretend that you're opera singers?
Children: Yes!
Carla: Let's just do one note and do it really loud but pretty.
Child: (singing)
Carla: Okay, one, two, three. (singing)
Children: (singing)
Carla: Oh, you guys are so good!

Carla: My name is Carla Dirlikov Canales, and I am a mezzo-soprano by training, classical opera singer, but I think in the last few years I would define myself more as an artist, entrepreneur, and social advocate who aims to use the arts for positive social change. I am the founder of the Canales Project, and still an active singer and advocate.

I started my experience through the State Department programming in 2005, and have had the good fortune of going on programs pretty much since then, so I guess 14 years total, to countries such as Mexico, Chile, China quite a bit, and Japan.

Actually, I would say that this program, the Arts Envoy Program, has been the single most significant professional experience that I've had as an opera singer because it's really connected me to who I am. My mother is Mexican, my father is Bulgarian, and I was born in Michigan and spent most of my childhood going bath and forth to Mexico, having dual citizenship and speaking Spanish and actually some Bulgarian as my first languages, and then learning English in school. I sort of described this as being born into a state of cultural confusion. I had these two very, very different cultures to learn about from my parents, and then of course a new one to assimilate to, that of Americana.

Most of my life, my number one desire was really just to fit in and particularly in Michigan, that was a challenge. I had this funny last name, I was a tall kid, I kind of had an accent. The same applied when I went to Mexico and I was in school in Mexico. I was a foot taller than all of the other kids, had a Slavic last name, and was still trying to figure out a lot of the idiosyncrasies of Mexican culture.

I think it was a natural fit for me to dive into the world of music because singing in particular has been the marriage of my two passions. It's this love of language that I grew up with, and of course, music itself, melody, and the strong power of that to transport you to a world where culture, identity, or passports, they don't matter. What really matters is emotion. That's the unifier for us as human beings is that we all have this tremendous capacity to feel deep emotion, and music allows us an opportunity to explore that. So I think of the universal language as being that of feelings rather than music, but I see music as the vehicle for that.

My biggest role model as a kid was Carmen, was this character that was Latina and just so strong and I didn't really understand her being sexy, but I definitely thought, "Wow, she is really cool and I want to be like her!" So that was my goal and I got to do just that. But of course, I found myself then in my early 20s still with these questions of, "Where do I belong, and what can I do now with this musical training? What is my voice as an individual? What can I do with it?"

One of my biggest mentors, he actually very kindly put me in touch with the cultural affairs people in Mexico City. Of course, I had been to mexico my whole life, but this was the first time that I got to go and see populations that weren't my family. We went to the state of Campeche, to the capital city. Everyone was taking a chance on this program and this project and thinking, "What is this opera singer going to do here in this rather small community that had never had an opera singer?" And as I was walking the streets of Campeche, I remember distinctly hearing these children's voices, going and following that into this alley, and just seeing these kids that were playing with nothing, and within 30 minutes we were just all singing and laughing and playing games.

The joy of singing is that it is free. You don't need to buy an instrument and we all have access to this. I went back to the folks from the State Department. I said, "What if we do something with these kids?" They said, "Okay, great, what do you mean," and we put together this little three-week camp with these kids that culminated in this concert which many of their parents came to, and as I found out then, many of these kids did not have parents. There were actually orphaned kids. This really was the first experience that got me thinking about the role that music can play, helping get them engaged in education and in their own creativity and I'm very proud to say that that small group of kids ... we ended up forming a choir and within a year, I believe they opened for Andrea Bocelli, and a few months after that, they were at the White House, winning the Coming Up Taller Award.

That was my initiation into this program where I saw directly the power one voice can have. In my case, I was just really fortunate to turn that corner and met those kids, and now see that many of them have gone to college and so forth. This was in 2005, so it got me hooked on this idea of, "What can we do as artists who use our voices literally and figuratively, to promote positive social impact and change?"

I think the part that was so touching to me were the hugs and the physical contact. It's interesting because I think there were a lot of stigmas toward opera singing that I didn't even really understand. I was drawn to opera because I thought, "Wow, the human voice can make this loud sound that's beautiful and there's no microphone? How does that work?" And I remember singing for the first time for the kids, and seeing on their faces, that same questioning and excitement that I had as a kid when I first heard opera, like, "Wait, wait, how do you do that? Are you an alien? What's happening here?" Just that curiosity that was sparked resulted in this bond where they felt, "Yeah, I've got a voice too! Teach me how to do that! How can I sing and how can I make those sounds," and this connection that was not an intellectual one, it was not an academic one, it was a visceral one. It was really about, "how do I use my body to do that really, really cool thing that you can do?"

I think as such there was this physicality to it that just transcended any language and was not just about the sound itself and getting the kids to sing unabashedly and just express their emotion in that way, but also the comfort that came with their physicality to hug me, for me to hug them also. There was this barrier that was broken with something that was so intrinsically human as the human voice, and this connection that just allowed us to leap over many of the layers of convention that we put in society and just get to the heart and soul of human contact very quickly.

One of the things that I've learned so much through this work is about the power of the human voice to transcend those social conventions and, to me, this was even more apparent in countries like Japan and China where I didn't have the advantage of speaking the language. In Latin America, it was certainly easier because Spanish is my first language, but China in particular ... the first trip that I made there was quite daunting because I thought, "How on earth am I going to connect? There's a different language and there's also a different musical style and tradition." I was very aware of coming in as an opera singer with such a strong Western tradition to my style of singing.

It was really a moment where I went inward and thought to myself, "Okay, what is this supposed to be about? This is supposed to be about exchange." And that word has stayed with me very much because I think in any opportunity for growth, for learning, for love ... I will be as bold as to use that word ... there has to be true exchange. It can't just be about forcing someone to listen to you, and many times in the Western tradition, we get onstage and we just say, "Okay, you sit there and I'm going to scream these notes at you." But the real moments of beauty are simple exchange where it goes both ways, and in thinking about that particularly, getting ready for the first China trip, I thought, "There's so much I don't know here. I know nothing about Chinese opera. I know nothing about Chinese language. I don't understand how they make those sounds, what's involved in their musical tradition." I wanted to allow myself to be guided by those questions.

I think that, for me, has been one of the most important relationships, because actually now, 10 years later, I am totally hooked on Chinese culture. I didn't think I would be able to necessarily relate to it, it was so foreign to me, and I have made it a point to go back as often as possible to China. I study Chinese every day. I just have really had this passion for Chinese culture and it brings me back to that point that ultimately we are all the same. We are all trying to express our emotion and our humanity and better understand it and music is a tool for that, however that musical style may be. Some of the most important experiences for me, for instance, on that first trip, was I got to do a joint concert with a Chinese opera singer, and she would sing a song, and I would sing a song, and then we did a song together in Chinese, and she was so incredibly patient and kind with me as I tried to fumble through that language. Those relationships have stayed with me to this day, 10 years later, so I'm very grateful.

One of the most special trips for me was a trip that I got to take with my long-time pianist and best friend, Justin Snyder. We met in college, and he's a wonderful accompanist. Many times when I go abroad, of course, I'm just going abroad and I might do masterclasses or work with a local pianist, but in this case we had actually prepared a program of American repertoire, and it was really quite wonderful in that it gone through a lot of the history of the United States and the musical styles. We were so focused on those elements, and we were going into really, really rural communities in China, like no cities anyone had ever heard of. There certainly were no Starbucks, nobody spoke English, and you would not find a fork anywhere. It was purely chopsticks and tea. It was awesome. We both loved that about it.

One thing that really surprised me on that trip ... Justin is gay, and very openly so. And we hadn't really thought a lot about that element in China, and I remember, concert after concert, after the concerts, all these girls would line up outside of his dressing room to say hi to him. I always thought that was sweet and cute, and I watched the way he navigated those conversations so beautifully, so openly, and with this huge smile on his face, like, "No, I'm actually married, but I'd love to go shopping with you guys if you wanna go tomorrow!" And the girls would be like, "Oh," and you could tell the disappointment was there for 10 seconds, and they'd be like, "Yeah, let's go to lunch," and that's just the girls with the boys, and I think especially because we were in such rural communities. It was really kind of interesting to see the reaction ... some of the conversations that he got to have with those young people about his own journey, and it always ended up being exactly the right thing to do.

I look at the lineage of American artists who have been at the heart of cultural diplomacy and I feel so proud of my country for what they've done to promote that and of the opportunities that I've had to follow in their footsteps. I think specifically about folks like Carmen Miranda or, of course, Louis Armstrong. The list goes on and on. Not just the work that they did as artists, but the results of that work. I see those results every day and that when I travel, I do feel like American culture is certainly up there as one of its greatest exports. That is a huge gift, but it's also a big responsibility, to not just impose our style and our music but to really try to learn from the other style, the other countries, as much as possible. I think that's the most important part is the exchange.

What I've learned the most in my travels is that it really isn't about the technical perfection, and it's not even about the Western classical standard. It's about truth and authenticity, and those moments of authenticity are the ones I think that pull at my heartstrings, anyway, more than anything else, and I've seen that certainly in folk music, in traditional music, in the courage that it might take a young artist or a non-trained artist to come forward and say, "I want to share this song with you," or, "I want to play this piece for you." It's always kind of this fine line of vulnerability to share what's in your heart, but also courage to speak up and be willing to do that in front of another human being. I think it really has made me rethink my own life.

I had spent hours and hours and hours working on raising my soft palate in a certain way to get the perfect "aah" vowel, and a high note to fill an opera house. I realized at a certain point, "Okay, I can spend two or three hours today in the practice room doing that, or I could take those two or three hours and go into a disadvantaged community and just sing some songs," and it doesn't matter if the soft palate is perfect. What's going to matter is the open heart and the connection.

I would say even, to a step further, as much as I adore the craft of opera and still am enthralled by that magic that happens, I realized too that in order to connect with people, it's important to accept other styles of singing and I've now become very curious about other styles: pop, Broadway, I guess you could say more casual styles of singing, and have tried to grow my own vocal training in those ways, partially for curiosity, but mostly out of a desire to connect to people in a way that might be more authentic, and I really find that there's so much to be learned from artists that have done that from the beginning, certainly many of whom I've admired who are American, like Bob Dylan or Patti Smith, or I'll throw in a Canadian, Leonard Cohen. For me, when I listen to their music, it's very much about connecting on a human level and it doesn't have any operatic elements. Having an openness about other ways of communicating is super important and I've learned to value that very much on my travels.

One of the interesting things for me has been this journey that I've gotten to go on through the character of Carmen, and as I mentioned, it was my dream as a little girl to sing this role, and I used to steal my mother's skirts and put them on as a four or five year-old and I would dress one brother up as a bull and the other was a bullfighter and I would just run around playing Carmen. When I got to do it, it was such a dream come true, but it's interesting because I think that that character sort of stayed as a vehicle for me in many other ways. More recently, I was doing a Carmen production, worked with a director, and he kept saying to me, [Spanish 00:24:27]. He was a Spanish director, and I thought, "What is this word, 'duende?' I speak Spanish, I don't know anything about this." So lo and behold, I google it and duende, as I have learned, is the opposite of technical perfection. It's all about soul and authenticity and facing your fears and just giving it your whole body heart, everything that's in your guts, and putting it there on the stage.

And this has led me into a whole nother area, but essentially the man who introduced this word, Spanish playwright Lorca, influenced Patti Smith very much, Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan. His fascination was folk music, and he said, "That's where you find it. You find it in the flamenco singer who's singing at 3:00 AM at the bar." I guess that's the thing for me, and as an arts envoy for the State Department, when I get to go to the different countries, that's what I'm looking for. I've seen that duende, that Spanish word, all over the word now, and ultimately it's a human concept. It's not a Spanish one. So that's the thing, much more than opera or technical perfection, it's the duende.

I've seen certain threads, and certainly more so in the last few years, some of which are very painful. I've seen in underserved communities consistently, and throughout the world, a lot of pain and a sense of hopelessness and lack of being heard. It's an interesting juxtaposition because while I sense this and I've seen it, I also see that within those communities, there's such love and comradery and kinship but I'd say a general lack of faith in the system and institutions, and that can result certainly from my coming in as an outsider, in some trepidation, in some fear, and I can understand that from their perspective. Why would they want to come in here, a Western trained opera singer? That would make no sense. This is just a small, specific way of looking at a much bigger problem, which is how can we at large connect with communities that feel like they have been failed by the system, by government, by larger institutions? And it's something I think about a lot, because again, my training is sort of, "I'm going to stand here and sing and you're going to listen, and there's times you're going to clap," and there's this structure.

I think we need to break the structure, first and foremost, and it's not so much about having folks sit and listen, whether it's, again, to politicians or to an artist. It's about a dialogue. It's about exchange, and first and foremost, it's about my role coming in and hopefully going to those communities and saying, "I want to listen to you. You matter. I want to learn from you." And I really mean that, because at the end of the day, I've looked at my life and thought, "What am I doing here?" I can go and sing at the opera houses, and that's going to be for a certain demographic and that's cool. A lot of my colleagues do that, I've been trained to do that, and I have done it. But I think I realized at a certain moment that I'm not really interested in what has been done before. I want to get out there and really use my life to make a difference in the world, and it sounds aspirational, but hopefully to make the world a better place. And I think the way that I can best do that with the skills I have right now is to help and facilitate these connections.

If I have the opportunity to go into a community, be it in the US or abroad, that is a lesser-served community, a lower income community, I come from a community like that. I understand that. It's my responsibility first and foremost to listen and to try to somehow create trust. Trust is not given. I often think of trust as a currency. There's no reason someone should come and hear me sing and there's trust and it's done. Why, because I have credentials of places I've sung? No. Trust is earned, and I think there's that thing that we can't quite put into words, but you feel when someone comes onstage or when someone goes into the room, and you feel an openness. You feel like they care. For me, if I can use my position to go into the communities, to listen, to carry their stories with me, that's the work I can do to help, and I take that, first and foremost, as my biggest job, my biggest responsibility.

I have a tremendous amount of hope in humanity. At the end of the day, I think people are good, I think people want to be good. I see that, I see that every single day in people helping each other, people being willing to open their hearts, their homes, their resources to helping one another, and I've seen extraordinary examples of that, certainly first and foremost, on my travels as an arts envoy. Countless, hundreds of instances where people in these remote communities where I've gotten to go and sing will give me literally the jewelry they're wearing, the scarf they have on. They'll try to give me these things as a token of thanks, which of course, I can't accept, but it's this point of generosity and ultimately of love. I think that that's the biggest thing is we have to remove the stigma, the taboo associated with that word, and start to think of that as the most powerful tool that we ultimately have as human beings.

I'm always really touched that it just seems like any time I've gotten to go anywhere, people are so excited and happy to host me or to meet me or to hear a concert, and I think there is an innate curiosity that exists abroad about a new experience, a new possibility, and that's what I mean about the hope. If we can encourage that and embody that more and live our lives more that way, that's powerful, and I never take that for granted. I think following up on that with conversations and just really trying to take that to the next level, I've stayed in touch with so many of the people that I've gotten to meet, seen many of them go off to college or have children, and been able to help many of them along the way also, and certainly, they've helped me grow as an artist. That's really beautiful. I've also conversely seen instances that were really hard where I thought, "Hmm, I don't know if this is going to work out," and each and every single time, they've turned around, so I have a lot of hope in humanity.

I talk about it all the time because, again, I think it's just the most special, important work I've gotten to do as an artist, and as much as it's brought me the most thought-provoking experiences and shaped what I do today and starting a not-for-profit because I wanted more experiences and I didn't want to always depend on the State Department, I wanted to enhance the work that y'all are doing, and find other ways to carry it forward in addition, too. But on a very personal note, when I started my first trip in 2005, just received my master's degree, and the truth is I was just starting to find my voice as a Mexican-Bulgarian-American. In all of these boxes that we're talking about now, I'd always check the "Other" box, and I didn't really know what my voice was.

And over the course of these 14 years now, I feel like this experience is what's helped me not only to find my voice but to have the courage and the confidence to try to use my voice and use it loudly to explore these issues of identity and culture and to amplify the voices of so many who don't necessarily get heard, and really promote the positive social impact that I think all of us artists want to see in the world. This would not have happened for me if it weren't for this opportunity, and I don't feel often like I've done much for others, I feel like the opportunity has done a lot for me, so I'm just incredibly grateful and feel a deep sense of commitment to spending the rest of my life working in the way that I have learned throughout my Arts Envoy experience.

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.

This week, Carla Canales reminisced about her many years spent as an ECA arts envoy. For more about ECA cultural and other programs, check out eca.state.gov. We also encourage you to subscribe to 22.33. You can do so wherever you find your podcasts, leave us a review while you're at it, if you would be so kind, 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 at our webpage, at eca.state.gov/2233. 

Special thanks this week to Carla for her time, her talent, and her passion to make this world a better place. I did the interview and edited this segment. All of the music that you heard featured Carla's amazing voice, including excerpts from "O mio Fernando" from the opera "La Favorita" by Gaetano Donizetti, "Habanera" from the opera "Carmen" by Georges Bizet, "Lob des hohen Verstandes" from the opera "Des Knaben Wunderhorn" by Gustav Mahler, and I should mention that the version you heard was performed by Carla in China with the Chinese National Symphony Orchestra; "Gold Tooth Blues", "Cucurrucucú Paloma", and "Algún Día". 

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 40 - [Bonus] The Food We Eat, Part 6

LISTEN HERE - Episode 40


Listen to these deliciously entertaining food stories from Ukraine, Bulgaria, Jordan, Kenya, Nigeria, India, South Africa, and the United States.


Chris: A riddle for our listeners in other countries to ponder with this episode. What do you miss the most about America? Well, according to Alexey from Ukraine the answer is simple, Mexican food.

Welcome, to our sixth bonus food episode. Remember, if you can't find Mexican, there's always jellied meat. You're listening to 22.33 a podcast of exchange, and sometimes, food stories.

Speaker 1: Everyone was expecting me to eat not healthy food during my program. Yeah, everyone when I came back to Ukraine, everyone asked me, "You ate a lot of hotdogs and not healthy food." I was saying, "No, I didn't. I didn't try even one hot dog."

Chris: This week, missing Mexican food in America, the search for the best jollof rice, and tripping on the tongue of a goat. Join us on the journey around the world to tickle your taste buds. It's 22.33.

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

Speaker 2: One of the professors who was Cosa, which I pronounce *click*Cosa, it's clicking, and I do a horrible job of it. But e brought in a goat's head, and they had grilled the goat's tongue and goat eyeballs. They had fermented goat milk, which is a delicatessen liquor, but it's disgusting. Then, they had ginger beer. I tried all those.

It's one of those moments where you really get pushed outside of your comfort zone, and you think "I'm not going to eat a goat's tongue. This is below me, and I would never do this." Then you look, and you say, "Well for 5,000 or 2,000, or even 100 years, they've been eating this, and they're just mammals, too. So, if they can do it, I can do it." I ate it, and then it was really gummy and chewy. It wasn't that great, but you... It's important to get outside of your comfort zone.

I always say, "Half of traveling is finding out what you like. You like seeing the Eiffel Tower, or you like seeing the Great Wall of China. The other half is finding out what you don't like." It turns out goat's tongue is something I don't like as well as fermented goat milk. It's part of their culture. It's very important to them. It's the way we cook hot dogs. If you went to one of them and probably said eat a, I don't want to pick on any company here, but "Eat an Oscar Mayer Wiener hot dog," they'd say, "No, it's bad plastic, get that thing away from me." Then I would say, "Well, how dare I eat a goat's tongue," and they said, "Well, this is actually food."

Speaker 3: Meat and rice, topped with some sort of nuts and/or sauce, are the basic components to a Jordanian meal. One really interesting thing about Jordan is that even though it is a small country, it actually has quite a diverse population. So there a number of Palestinians, or people of Palestinian heritage or origin, who live there as well and who came there in 1948 and afterwards. So, Palestinian cooking differs in some pretty fundamental ways from Jordanian cooking. It was really neat to get exposure to Palestinian food as well. I also got exposure to Sudanese food through my students, and Iraqi food. Everybody hosted us.

It was so, I mean, it was really incredible, especially with regards to the refugee families who hosted us. It was like folks were really, really struggling, I think, in their material circumstances, and yet they always made time and place for us, to serve us meals because that was such a key way of interacting with people or showing appreciation and stuff. So, you better believe I was going to eat all that meat for a number of reasons.

One of the foods, I think, that was most surprising to me was the Sudanese dish called asida. Asida translates as porridge. For weeks, my students would tell me about asida, "Teacher Grace, we're going to make you asida some day. I mean it's this traditional Sudanese dish. You're really going to love it. Porridge is so... I'm thinking like oatmeal. I don't know. This doesn't sound so very earth-shattering.

So, towards the end of my time in Jordan, a couple of Sudanese families had us over and made asida for us. Porridge is just perhaps a misdirect or a mistranslation entirely. It's a meat. It's a meat and carb dish, but it was very... It was really unusual and totally departed from what I thought it was going to be. It was red meat of some kind, and kind of this thin sauce. Then the porridge part is this... I mean, it's basically flour and water, and some other things in there, too. I really couldn't say, but it was by far one of the most perplexing dishes I had. I think one of the simpler dishes. Sudanese food is very different than Jordanian or Palestinian food, which takes hours and hours to prepare, and stuff like that.

Speaker 4: One of the more interesting food revelations I had, when I was over there, had to do with jollof rice, which is a West African rice dish. It's basically white rice that you cook within a, instead of water, you cook it in a spicy tomato stew, so the rice ends up being really this kind of rich, very spicy hot tomato stew.

For Nigerians, jollof rice is a go-to staple. You see it all the time. It's often a family Sunday dish. There's a very, very intense competition about who makes the best jollof rice, what is the real jollof rice. I'm doing air quotes for that. Also, many countries in West African have their own version of jollof rice. They all think that each other's is the worst and only theirs is the true best one.

So, we spent some time in Ghana also, so they have their own jollof rice there that they think is the best. I don't mind going on the record here and saying that from my own personal perspective that I think Nigerian is the best one. I always found it to be the most flavorful and spicy, which is, that's what I need. I need the heat in the jollof rice, and I found it in Nigeria.

So, getting to learn about that was great. We had a friend of a friend was very excellent cook in Lagos, and we got her to come over one day and do a Nigerian cooking lesson. So I tried my hand at making jollof rice. It turned out very well that time when I had the chef watching over my shoulder. I've tried to make it at home since then, and I feel like the texture is not quite right, so I'm still working on it.

It's a learning process, but that was one. Now, I feel like I see jollof rice all the time now on Twitter, social media. It's a huge thing. That was a cultural insight that I wasn't really aware of before I went on this trip, but now I see that jollof is like this touchstone for... It's like a key to unlocking a lot of West African culture. Also, if you can go up to people on the street and tell them that their country's jollof is the best or the worst, depending on what kind of relationship you want to have with that person, then that's always an in.

I remember one time I even went to... I was in Ghana, and I was trying to go to get a visa to go to Togo next door. That we went into the Togolese Embassy, and some of the people working there were watching a cooking show on TV about jollof, and they were Togolese. So, they have their own version of what it's supposed to look like, and the thing that was on the TV was Senegalese Jollof, which is like completely different. It has fish. It's a totally different thing. They were so shocked by what they were seeing and having this very heated conversation.I went in, and I was said, "You're watching the show about Jollof," and they're like "Yes, can you believe what you're seeing on this thing, it's crazy," and then I said something about how I prefer Nigerian Jollof, which then I thought they were going to reject my visa application because of that, but we ended up having a friendship in the end because of that. That was really great.

Speaker 5: Mexican food is something that got me. Whenever I come to the states it's all like Mexican breakfast, lunch, dinner. It's something that you cannot get in Ukraine. I've been trying Mexican restaurants here too many times and they're all dreadful. It's like it's food from the grocery store, it's bad, and it's too expensive. I remember a time when a friend of mine, Serge, actually came to visit a couple of times, the guy that we co-founded the studio with. We went to a random Mexican restaurant in Chicago, not even a restaurant, something like a café or buffet. We ordered a couple of things. Suddenly, we had a table full of food. It was very delicious. It was awesome, and it was so cheap. I still recall that lunch. We could barely stand up. It was all great. We could not stop, but also we could not continue. It was great. Whenever I come back to the States... I love going to States for conferences and other stuff for a week or two, and yeah, it's Mexican.

I remember I flew into New York in April last year for a training. My plane landed. I came to my friend's apartment in, I think, Washington Heights in New York. They were like, "What do you want to eat?" I'm like, "Mexican, let's go." It's something that I really miss. Also having a diversity in food. Whatever food you want to try, be it Afghan or Indian, or Thai, it's usually made by immigrants, who actually know how to do it, who are great at it. I think they put a lot of passion into what they do. It's a very different experience.

Speaker 6: I was really used to Slavic food because my family is Polish, and I have lived in Russia. So, there wasn't too much that surprised me, but there is a special... Oh, gosh, and now I'm forgetting what it's called. It's a special drink that's made out of smoked fruit. So it's like smoked apricots, and other dried fruits that are then soaked. The essence of them is derived into the water that they're soaked in and you drink that.

It's got a very, we would say in Russian [foreign language 00:12:06] taste. It's very specific or strange. I really didn't like this. But when my husband came to visit me, I was like, "You got to try this, this drink. What do you think of this drink?" He tried it and just told me that it tasted like dirt. So yeah, specific is the way to describe that particular beverage. Other than that, no, nothing too crazy. I had been exposed to jellied meats and all manner of pickled meats and vegetables before I lived in Ukraine.

Speaker 7: We had the international day where we were representing our backgrounds, and we cooked food and stuff. So I was like, I had no cooking skills, but now I had to cook for 40 people. So I called my mom up and I was like, "What can I do?" So I ended up making these cheeseburgers, with bacon and cheese inside of them. I had spent so much time, and I had a lot of help. I do remember, and finally coming out, I'm like "This isn't half bad." Then I noticed that not many people had it, I'm like, "Well, my confidence just went down." Then someone explained to me the number of Muslims that were there.

That's the first time that I've ever considered something like that because of the bacon and pork inside it. That's when I started thinking about other cultures more and getting a larger... That was within the US. So, something simple like that really opened my eyes.

Speaker 8: I think the sensation of feeling foreign was definitely something that became less and less foreign as my program went on. But I think my first moment of what they call a culture shock on exchange was my very first day. I was exhausted after around 48 hours of cumulative travel. I was getting my first doses of Indian mosquito bites, and the heat and the humidity.

I show up. I just come home from the airport with my host family, and it was lunchtime there. Back at home it was around 1:00 AM. So I certainly was not hungry. But of course, my host family had taken me home. They were excited to show me the food, which is a huge part of Indian culture in my experience. So, we sat down to lunch. I just remember tasting my first bite and it being so incredibly spicy. It definitely was not used to the palette. Came to love it later on, but I remember sitting there, and in an Indian culture, where here in the US, we have a lot of direct communication, in India, it's very much indirect.

So, the communication style was very, very different on my first day. Certainly, hadn't gotten used to it. In India, it's customary, when you don't want more food to say [Foreign language 00:15:02], which means the Hindi for enough. You have to be very, very firm with it. There's like a very specific way to do it. I, of course, was not so familiar with it, so I just was not able to express. All the food kept on coming, and I remember sitting there just trying new food after new food, and realizing wow, this is crazy, but also simultaneously, the greatest adventure I've ever taken on.

Chris: 22.33 is produced by the Collaboratory. An initiative within the U.S. State Department's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, better known as ECA. My name's Christopher Wurst. I'm the director of the Collaboratory. 22.33 is named for Title 22, Chapter 33 of the U.S. Code, the statute that created ECA. Our stories come from participants of U.S. government-funded international exchange programs.

Sharers of crazy food stories this week were Irina Volynets, Richie Mathes, Grace Benton, Alexey Furman, Tim McDonnell, Nina Jankowicz, Luke Tyson, and David Rader. We thank them for their stories and for their willingness to share and to try new things.

For more about ECA exchanges, you can check out eca.state.gov. For more about 22.33, you can write to us at ECA Collaboratory at state.gov, that's E-C-A C-O-L-L-A-B-O-R-A-T-O-R-Y at State.gov. You can find the complete episode transcripts of every episode at our webpage, eca.state.gov/2233.

Special thanks this week to everyone for trying new food and for sharing their stories about it. Featured music during this segment was Kentucky Oysters by George Russell. At the top of this episode, Monkeys Spinning Monkeys by Kevin MacLeod. The end credit music, as always, Two Pianos by Tagirljus. Until next time.  


Season 01, Episode 39 - Knitting as Coding with Lindiwe Matlali

LISTEN HERE - Episode 39


As an orphan raised by her grandfather in rural South Africa, but pushed by her brilliant older brother, Lindiwe Matlali beat the odds and went to the best university in Africa.  Now, as the leader of Teen Geeks, she is teaching the next generation to become tech-literate coders, simply by using knitting needles. For more information on the TechWomen program please visit: https://www.techwomen.org.


Audio transcription in progress // Please return shortly for the complete text to this episode


Season 01, Episode 38 - [Bonus] Father/Daughter Exchange

LISTEN HERE - Episode 38


A very unique bonus episode to celebrate Father’s Day, featuring 15-year-old Meenu Bhooshanan, who describes her life-changing experience learning Arabic in Jordan- halfway across the world from her native Alabama. Her father, Sri, is a special invited guest and he talks about how her journey ended up being life-changing for him as well. For more information about the NSLI-Y program visit: https://www.nsliforyouth.org.


Chris: This week, a bonus episode in honor of Father's Day. It's one thing to hear stories from a 15-year-old girl about her time in the Middle East living far away from home, immersing herself in Arabic lessons. That's sounds like a pretty typical 22.33 premise, but this time around, we also get to hear from the girl's father, because it's one thing to go off on an adventure but it's something else entirely to be left behind as your child goes halfway across the world. You're listening to 22.33, a podcast of exchange stories.

Meenu: I had a very different experience from my white American counterparts. Actually, my partner, I think had a marriage proposal in exchange for camels, but I didn't really experience any harassment of that sort, so I was lucky in that sense.

Chris: This week, life in a new family minus English, the best Shawarma in the Middle East and the first steps towards independence. Join us on our journey from Huntsville, Alabama to Amman, Jordan, which is a long way for a father to send his 15-year-old daughter. It's 22.33.

Intro Clip 1: (Music) We report what happens in the United States, warts and all.
Intro Clip 2: (Music) These exchanges shape to who I am.
Intro Clip 3: (Music) When you get to know these people, they're not quite like you, you read about them. They are people very much like ourselves and ....
Intro Clip 4: (Music)

Meenu: My name is Meenu Bhooshanan. I'm a current freshman student at Washington University in St. Louis and a National Security Language Initiative for Youth 2016 Alumna for the Arabic Summer Program. I studied abroad in Jordan three years ago and my dad and little sister took that opportunity for a one week trip to see a slice of the country I would be living in for six weeks.

Sri: My name is Sri Bhooshanan and I live in Madison, Alabama. I am a software engineer, but more importantly, I am the proud father of Meeno Bhooshanan . Meeno and I are here to talk about Meeno's NSLI-Y Arabic summer program in Amman, Jordan.

Meenu: I was 15 when I went on the program. It was my first time traveling alone. At first, the first few weeks when school hadn't really kicked off yet, I remember being very, very homesick. I missed my family a lot and they also wanted to talk to me a lot because my mom was really worried about me being gone for six weeks without her. I remember I was giving a presentation in Arabic to our NSLI-Y peers and then I see that she started calling me on Skype during the presentation. Little things like that, I found that to combat homesickness, I needed to speak to my parents less and I also needed to throw myself in my studies and as my bonds strengthened with my NSLI-Y peers and then later on with my host family. At the end of the program, I definitely felt I didn't want to leave Jordan, so it was an interesting transformation over the six weeks.

Sri: The backstory here is that when I was in high school in India, I was slated to go on a school trip to Nepal and for some reason that trip got canceled by the organizers at the last minute. I was sorely disappointed, so when you came to us about filling your NSLI-Y application, your mom and I were cautiously supportive. We were a bit nervous about it, but didn't want to stand in the way of your accomplishment. Your mom and I had some discussions and the gist of it was that if we'd said no, we might regret it for the rest of our lives, and we figured since it was under the egest of the state department, you'd be okay.

Quick geography lesson, Jordan is surrounded by Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Israel and Egypt, countries that have seen their share of tumult, but we felt that this experience would ground you, not only as an American but as a citizen of the world. The toughest part was not hearing from you for days on end. I remember mom once called you while you were in the middle of a presentation, and I guess the best part was when you did call. Although your calls were brief, they were a lifesaver for us. When you returned, and we asked you why you didn't call us, you said that in the beginning, you missed us so much that you didn't want us to hear you in that state.

Meenu: I was very nervous and actually I remember the first night I got there, we actually found out about our host family assignments the day of, so that was pretty interesting. I wasn't really sure if my gifts would work out, if there were kids. I was trying to buy generic things, so I had a little sister and two little brothers and a host mom. We were all living together and my host dad was in Dubai. I didn't really interact with him and I also had a NSLI-Y roommate with me at the time.

On the first night, I remember that they had given us some berry juice and I spilled it on the carpet and I thought to myself, "Oh, my gosh. This is the first night. You completely messed this up." It was amazing over the course of three weeks, I grew really close especially with my host siblings. I'd be studying and they'd come and we take play breaks, but an image in my mind is every day when we'd be dropped off by the bus from school, I would see them in the apartment window watching us get down and waiting for us to come play after a long day at school. That was definitely a fond memory of mine.

I felt that people just hadn't met an Indian-American before. I think it was interesting maybe being their first face and I kind of was that for my host family. That was their first time hosting. It was interesting also talking to them about it, because years after I went, they continued hosting NSLI-Y kids and I think all of them have ... They've all come from diverse American backgrounds, Indian-American, Pakistani, and Mexican-Americans are different background. It was interesting being people's first impression.

Yes. It was being an ambassador for the U.S., but it was also being an ambassador for Alabama and typical stereotypes down south that different people from different states, maybe they've never met a person from Alabama before. It was like an international level of diplomacy and also a national level of diplomacy.

As I reflect on that time, I can only say positive things about it. We had traveled together often as a family to various parts of the world, but this would be the first time you'd be traveling alone. You were only 15, so there was a definite trepidation about your safety in a foreign land, but on the flip side after you returned, you had gained confidence, a holistic world view which helped your journey into college and life in general.

There wasn't any English there and so I really did actually appreciate that, because I learned a lot of words from my host sister and she's very assertive. It was good to learn some new Arabic words from her.

After you returned, one of your favorite words was khalas, which means enough or stop in Arabic. Every time we'd nag you to clean the room or come to dinner, your response was, "Khalas Ama," or, "Khalas Daddy." That made us laugh and we still tease you about it.

There was this falafel shop right across the street from class that we started going to after Ramadan. I would go there pretty much every day and I had my order down path and I wanted to tell them how much I loved their falafel sandwiches. On the last day, I told them that, "You have the best falafels in all of Amman." At first, he didn't understand me but I repeated myself and then he smiled and said, "[foreign language 00:10:25]," and [foreign language 00:10:26] to your health." That was a really awesome moment.

It was interesting being Indian-American in Jordan in terms of most people looked at me and they didn't see an American. A lot of the times, it was actually a great conversation starter so people would ask me if I'm Indian or [foreign language 00:11:02], "Are you from India?" It was an opportunity for me to use some new vocab from class about ethnicity and explaining where my parents are from and that I'm from Alabama, actually in America. A lot of people didn't know about Alabama. I remember speaking to one shopkeeper and I think he thought I was from California, because he was saying, "Oh, that's where the big movies are."

Not so much in Alabama, but I explained it as we're near Florida and most people had heard of Disney World. That was what I used as a frame of reference. Where I'm from, I'm near Huntsville, Alabama. It has a big NASA and Defense community, and so I brought various gifts to share with my host family. For the kids, I brought Pocky sticks and some Indian sweets and for my host mom, I brought an Indian scarf and then for my host dad, I brought a NASA mug to share that part of Alabama.

I feel like in my familial interactions before NSLI-Y, it was kind of my parents doing the talking and I watch my dad make connections with people abroad and I always thought that was a very useful skill to have those people skills and connect with people, but I found myself putting myself out there and trying to just talk with everybody. I feel like those interactions, I was definitely ... I felt like I wish my parents were there to see it.

Sri: You've kept in touch and even met some of your NSLI-Y cohorts. You've kept in touch with your host family. You've been very active in high school and the Huntsville community. I've always said that life is about making relationships and maintaining the good ones and learning from the bad ones. These things are incalculable, but they count. You are also more in tune with foreign affairs and current events and you have continued to sharpen your Arabic skills in college. A few people have asked me, "Why you chose Arabic?" I almost say, "Why not? It's one of the toughest to read, speak, or write." You are sharpening your skills at a young age and I'm proud of the quote you used in one of your essays, "If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart." I think it's by Nelson Mandela. You make us proud each and every day as you navigate through life and I think your NSLI-Y experience was a catalyst for your growth into young adulthood.

Meenu: I was more sure ... I felt more faith in my ability to form connections with human people through various things. Even though at times it was kind of tough being the sole representative of Indian-Americans, I was still able to form meaningful connections and I tried to, I guess, dig something special or leave people with impressions. I think that was definitely the most profound. As a teenager finding the power of my voice, I definitely felt that that was a big thing that happened to me over that summer.

As a student, that was really the first time ... That was the most rigor I had focused on one subject. I feel like it's a lot of sentences at once and the classroom instruction in tandem with the everyday events was a lot for a high school student. Coming back, that really did change my work ethic and it made me really excited for college, especially seeing my NSLI-Y peers going on to college that year.

Sri: I would say that as a family, thanks to your NSLI-Y experience. We didn't have the same anxiety when you went off to college at Washington University in St. Louis. Your flexibility and adaptability to new situations and generally making smart decisions, these skills had been honed during your time in Jordan and I know you roll your eyes when I say this, but I'm at an age where I reflect back on my sour days and someday you will look back at the NSLI-Y experience as one of the most formative ones. I'm certain of it.

Meenu: Our landmark excursions going to Wadi Rum and Petra were really amazing, so it was great to see those. I remember going to Wadi Rum because it was ... The Martian was actually shot there, so it looks like this extraterrestrial landscape. What really struck me is the lack of light pollution. At night, were also staying with a Bedouin tribe, and so the way they cook their food is under the earth and so they have these meats and different vegetables grilling. I remember one of the tribesman pulling it out of the ground and it was a really cool moment, but I'll never forget the multitude of stars. It felt kind of thick and like a blanket covering us.

Sri: When I saw that one picture of you sitting on a rock in the middle of the red sands of Wadi Rum looking out into the golden hues of the setting sun, I just felt a sense of great satisfaction.

Meenu: Excitement. There was a lot of excitement. I felt kind of ... I guess free a little bit in the sense that there was nothing for miles and I stayed up late looking at the stars. That type of sense of no commitments, I guess. It was a very interesting feeling. Near the very end, the last few days because I was talking with my class about how I didn't want to go and I couldn't believe that there were just a few days left and then my roommate from the apartment stay, she said, "I remember how homesick you were. It's crazy to see that you've changed that much." I was like, "Oh, yeah. I guess I did." I hadn't noticed until she had pointed it out.

Sri: From author Anna Quindlen and I'm paraphrasing here, "We are good parents not so our children will be loving enough to stay with us, but so they will be strong enough to leave us." I think the NSLI-Y program exemplifies 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 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 statue that created ECA and our stories come from participants of U.S. Government funded international exchange programs.

This week, Meeno Bhooshanan described her time in Jordan, learning Arabic as part of the National Security Language Initiative for Youth or NSLI-Y program and her father, Sri, described his time here while she was there. For more about NSLI-Y and other ECA exchange programs, check out eca.state.gov. We also encourage you to subscribe to 22.33. You can do si wherever you find your podcasts and hey, we'd appreciate a nice review while you're there, 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. Did you know that you can find a photo of each week's interviewee and a complete episode transcript on our webpage each week at eca.state.gov/2233.

Special thanks to Meeno for her stories and her dad, Sri, for agreeing to offer his perspective on the exchange as well. I interviewed Meeno. Meeno interviewed her dad and I edited this segment. Featured music was Tiny Putty, Lebranche, Rabbit Hole, and Dirty Wallpaper all by Blue Dot Sessions and Outmoded Waltz 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 37 - Between Us, Bread and Salt with Tony Tahhan

LISTEN HERE - Episode 37


Meeting across a table to share a meal brings people together like nothing else.  In this episode, American Tony Tahhan traces his family’s history on a historical food tour through Syria, and in the process discovers a lot about shared humanity.


Chris: There are certain elemental things that are important in every culture in the world and, perhaps, the most vital of them is food; people come together at the table. Cultures can be understood and transmitted through their food transitions. You know this, of course, because this is your life's work.

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

Tony: We were on a bus trip, we're in a small van out to the outskirts of Aleppo. And as we were approaching the village, our van broke down. They were fixing the tire and I'm not really useful in this place, so I am in this arena, so I decided I'd go walking around with my big DSLR camera like a total tourist. And I start weaving in and out of pomegranate trees because that's their primary crop in Busselton.

And I stumbled across this pomegranate farmer who was kneeled down and covering his harvest of pomegranates with a burlap sheet to protect it from the elements. I snapped this picture of this farmer and then when he heard my camera click he turned around, and it was this very intense moment because I didn't know what his reaction was going to be, and it was fascinating.

Before he asked me who I was, what my name is, what I was doing, before anything before he even said a word, before he even said hello, he clearly recognized that I was not a local from my camera, and my look of amazement. And he cracked open one of his pomegranates, and he extended it to me, and that's how he started the conversation.

Chris: This week, never count your food, plastic tomatoes, and the fear of God and owls. Join us on a journey from Baltimore, Maryland to Aleppo, Syria, and learning that food is much more than simple calories.

It's 22.33.

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

Tony: My name is Tony Tahhan. Originally I was born in Venezuela I grew up in Miami, went to school in upstate New York. I did a Fulbright research grant in Aleppo, Syria, where I was studying food traditions in three contexts at homes, and restaurants, and in the streets.

I come from a family of immigrants, my grandparents moved from Syria to Venezuela in the 1950s. My parents grew up in Venezuela, but like the children of most immigrant families they, through some social engineering, met each other, we moved to the US when I was four.

Food, for me, has always been a window into my heritage. It was the way I connected, it was like a tangible way that I connected with my identity; but I never knew that food was anything I could study about. I always enjoyed it, in fact, my mom shares stories that even before I knew how to form sentences, I would wake up in my crib asking for [foreign language 00:05:24], which is this Venezuelan rice and milk drink that's similar to what [foreign language 00:05:24]. My mom said I love my stomach growing up.

There was this open ended research grant, and I jokingly said, "Wouldn't it be interesting if somebody used this grant to study food?" But my advisor said, "You know there's a field called 'Anthropology of food', and it sort of blew my mind that you could study a culture through the foods that they eat. And that resonated with me because that made sense, the same way that food was a window into my own heritage, into my own culture; food is a window to other people's lives.

My family cooked a lot of those traditional dishes growing up, but I never really felt like I was part of the culture. When I was living in Syria, when I was doing my Fulbright there, people my age were shocked because I would use funny words that were Arabic words from my grandparents that nobody used anymore.

One of them was the word for freezer, my grandmother calls it [foreign language 00:05:24] which is literally icebox. The modern Syrians today just call it [foreign language 00:05:30], which is the modern word for freezer, and they were just laughing. My taste in music was like the music my grandmother was listening to.

My ultimate goal, and I shared this with my friend, is to go into a shop and have a very basic conversation, and have the shop owner think that I'm from Aleppo. So we go into this juice shop, I ask, "[foreign language 00:06:05]". And I just tried to keep it as simple as possible. I asked for freshly squeezed orange juice.

And the shop owner looks at me and he says, "[foreign language 00:06:14]?" And I froze, and I look over at my friends and my friends are sort of ... I could see the nudging and making facial expressions for me to break down the root. Arabic is a root base, it's a Semitic language, so it has a very specific root structure that gives you an indication of what the word means.

And I'm going back to my Arabic class in my head [foreign language 00:06:37], and that root means flying, traveling. And I was like, "What is going on?" And then they all burst out laughing and it's like "[foreign language 00:06:46], do you want it to go?"

Food was a natural way, particularly Syrians and Aleppians, who take such pride in their food, it was a natural way to connect with the culture. And so, for my Fulbright proposal, I proposed doing an anthropological study of the midday meal, lunch. And I chose lunch, in particular, because that's the most important meal in the day.

But one thing that I chose that I really wanted to do for my Fulbright, in particular, is I wanted to blog about it. I didn't want to write an academic research paper, and my thoughts on that one is, I don't have this academic background. I took one course and I've read many books on anthropology of food, but what I really wanted to accomplish is have a conversation around food; and a blog really allowed this social platform. Whereas in an academic paper, you write something, you publish it, and the conversation's over. I really wanted to have a continuous conversation around food where Syrians and non-Syrians could come to the platform and share their perspectives; that it's not just me talking about these things.

And so as soon as I got to Aleppo, everyone talked about their research project, but as soon as the locals saw that I was one, saw that I was studying food, their guard went down. It was very different, they were so enthusiastic, people just wanted to invite me to their homes, they wanted to share their most interesting dishes. What was funny is that I had an innocuous conversation that starts about food, really went in all sorts of directions. People talked about their love lives, their politics, their traditions, their religion; so much is connected around food.

I never felt more foreign when I was invited over for lunch, and that's the main meal of the day in Syria and across the Middle East. My host is preparing kebabs and a whole bunch of other [foreign language 00:09:01], these are the small dishes that accompany a meal. And I knew the host would insist on me eating more so I, strategically, before I was even full, after I finished my first plate I sort of said, "Oh, thank you so much, the food is delicious." And then she insisted, "Oh, please have more." And I said, "Oh, I absolutely can't I'm so full." Even though I knew I had room.

And so we went back and forth and then I finally agreed to have some more food, and I was pretty proud of myself, I thought I navigated that cultural moment appropriately. And then when I finished that plate, she insisted on me having more and I was like, "Oh, no this backfired on me." And so I started saying, "Oh, no I'm really full this time." And she insisted some more.

And I didn't know I was running out of things to say, and so I said, "Oh I already had seven kebabs." And the room felt silent. And I was like, "Oh my gosh, what did I do?" And then laughs and she said, "It's a good thing we know you, but just as a heads up, if you're going to other people's houses, you should never count the number of things you ate."

And she explained to me that counting your food gives the indication that you worry that their food is limited, and that it might run out. And so hospitality is such an important part of the culture, that they really want to give you a sense that the food is limitless, that there's an abundance of food that you can eat, and the food will never run out. And so that was a very important cultural learning experience for me. It's not something you'd read in a book, but it's these little cultural tidbits, nuggets that you carry with you and you sort of appreciate the culture on a different level.

I wrote about this, I call this the Syrian hospitality waltz. There's little tidbits that, like I said, nothing you'd necessarily find in a book, Syrians have this way of their hellos drag on for a really long time, their goodbyes drag on for a really long time. And when I got there, originally, I was one confused; it was very difficult for me to navigate these customs. But then, the other part of me started recognizing the value in participating in these 'Pleasantries'. What I saw as a pleasantry was some of the social glue that brought people together. In Arabic, they have this term called [foreign language 00:11:40], meaning 'Duty'.

If somebody's sick, it's not like, "Do you want to visit them and see how they're doing?" They consider it [foreign language 00:11:47], they consider it a duty. When you frame it from that perspective, that's something that I learned is important, and something that I knew existed beforehand, but I really didn't appreciate the complexity of that hospitality, the complexity of that sort of commitment you make to your friends, and your community, and your loved ones. I learned that that's very important, and something that we shouldn't sort of casually toss out in our culture.

It was interesting, my host mom, when I got to Syria, was very confused about my project. She like, "Why is the US government paying you to come to study food?" She was very suspicious from the beginning, and I had no ... I would explain to her that it's about cultural exchange, and this was not making sense; I sensed in her body language that she was suspicious.

A few weeks into my project, I received this amazing email from a Syrian woman who left Syria when she was 18 and she moved to the US to Michigan; and she had lived there her whole life. She was in her, maybe, late 50s and she had not been to Syria in decades, and she wrote me a beautiful email about how reading my blog brought back these wonderful memories of her childhood.

And she said that her siblings are still in Syria that, if I ever needed anything, that I could reach out to them for help. And I said, "Perfect, I'll take this email and I'll share it with my host mom about why this project is important, and how it connects people." And so I'm reading the email and as I'm translating from English to Arabic so that she can understand, and I get to the part of her brothers, and I'm still translating and then she stops me. And then she goes, 'Wait a second, is this [foreign language 00:13:41]?"

And I was like ... I didn't even remember the name of the person who sent me the email, so I scrolled down and I was like, "What? How do you this person?" And she's like, "Oh, yes, [foreign language 00:13:50], she was a toddler, she lived in the same building that I moved into after I got married." And I was just like, "My mind is blown, what a small world." And that just shows how something so small can bring a point home, and make that connection. And from that point on, she was very enthusiastic about my project.

So I think the biggest thing that I took with me, and something that I continue to apply, is that food is more than just calories. The Syrian perspective of food is very rich, it goes beyond just, "What's the quickest way to get food in my stomach?" It's very time intensive and labor intensive; it's a lot of repetitive handwork.

What I learned was in these traditional dishes, this was an opportunity for, primarily, women to get together and have conversations, and for people to build communities; these matriarchs ran the household. And they got together with their friends, and nothing was individual, you cooked with your extended relatives, with your neighbors; the East Mediterranean is not unique in this.

Whether you're shaping dim sum, or baking bread, or rolling grape leaves, all this handwork is labor intensive but it speaks to the social aspect of food. And what I've come to realize is that ... And I read a study last week that in the US, every year their rates of depression and loneliness, people are so lonely. And when I look at, at least our approach to food here in the US is, "What is the quickest way I can get food on the table?"

And I understand it's a time crunch, we are busier than we've ever been, and the value of a minute is, increasingly, expensive. And if I could spend a minute producing output that can make me more money, versus a minute that I would be spending in the kitchen, it makes sense that we sort of de-prioritized food in the US. This research project has allowed me to take a step back and realize, "Have we optimized the wrong thing?" We've changed our approach to food. Ever since we've been an agriculture society for thousands of years, it has only changed in the last 40 years.

My neighbor, in Baltimore, she's 92 years old, and she is sharp as a tack. She talks about the war like it was yesterday, and I was like, "Miss [inaudible 00:16:52], what war are you talking about?" And she's like, "Oh, I'm talking about World War II, hon." And she has this amazing memory, and she tells me stories I remember walking out of my house one day, and it was a holiday weekend. I meet her in front of her door and she's like, "Oh, hon, this is not the way Baltimore was before." And I was like, "What do you mean?" And she's like, "The street resembles a mortuary." She's like, "No one's out, no one talks to each other anymore." She's like, "I used to know the entire neighborhood, now I rarely know anyone."

And I think this speaks to the way we've approached communities. One thing that I've tried to accomplish since coming back from my Fulbright is, I don't think we're going to go back to a time when we're all farmers and we're knowing everyone in our block. But one thing I've tried to do in my personal life is prioritize some communal cooking, and hanging out, and building community in my own life with my own friends, and sharing that with people.

And so, once a week, my friends and I get together and we pick these very labor intensive meals, and we just slow down, we cook together, and we talk, and we take care of each other; because that's what food is about, feeding each other. And it's beyond just calories that we're putting in our bodies, it's a social experience.

Even while I was there, I remember people wanted to treat me and take me out places and they would say, "Do you want pizza, do you want hamburgers?" Because that was the foreign cuisine, that's considered very high class and prestigious.

I was like, "No, you have such a rich culinary heritage. I want the [foreign language 00:18:41], I want the [foreign language 00:18:44], the stuffed vegetables." I was a little scared that I was seeing that while I was in Syria. In 2010 there was also an uptick in year round tomatoes, and it was funny because the locals call these tomatoes, what we see as a convenience being able to buy tomatoes year round, they call them the winter tomatoes, plastic tomatoes; they had no flavor.

And so you have from the one perspective the globalization aspect that is changing the culinary scene in Syria, but then the war brought on a lot of shortages; you couldn't get access to a lot of meat, everything became hyper local. And in a way, that sort of brought people back to their roots in terms of how food is prepared.

There wasn't a lot of abundance, and so when it was tomato season, you harvest these tomatoes and you preserve them. When you had leftover cucumbers, or turnips, or even lettuce, they pickled lettuce so that it would last longer. And I had something I had never seen before, the variety of pickles, a variety of lactose fermentation. My host mom made her own vinegar, not because you couldn't find vinegar, but because it was just a natural way to use up old apples.

I remember, I don't like apples that are mushy, so I bit into one and it was not very good, and I was getting ready to throw it away, she stopped me. She said, "No, no, cut off the piece that you bit off." And then she just cut up the rest into pieces and threw it in this jar with a whole bunch of fruit in there. And I was like, "What is that?" She's like, "I'm making vinegar."

And vinegar was amazing. Obviously, I don't want to minimize the pain and hardship that war creates in a community, the sort of not having water for many days in a row, electricity being cut off; but I also think that this rich colony heritage brings with it resilience. People are able to tap into these traditional methods of preservation to continue a culture.

And if you look at the Syrian culture, in general, this is one of the ... And the region, in particular, in Mesopotamia, this is one of the longest continuously inhabited places in the world. And in order for that to be the case, there had to be a lot of resilience built into the community, and I think culinary heritage is very complex, and a very strong culinary heritage provides some of that.

So Aleppo is this incredibly historic city, dating back millennia, and in the center of the city is this fortress, this citadel called the Citadel of Aleppo; and that dates back to at least 3,000 BC. It's a really old castle, has a moat so it looks a fortress out of Mario or something, out of a video game. They use it as a museum today, and it actually has a lot of historic significance. It's believed that Abraham once milked his herd of sheep on this very hill where the citadel was built and distributed that milk to the poor.

The Aramaic word for milk is [foreign language 00:22:13], which is where we get the Arabic name for Aleppo [foreign language 00:22:16]. And so even the name Aleppo is steeped in culinary heritage; that's a little aside. But what I wanted to do is, I wanted to access the very top of this citadel, at night, so that I could take a long exposure shot of Aleppo.

The problem is because they use it as a museum, they close at 4 p.m., not while it's still daylight out, and I really need the city to be dark to take this long exposure shot. So I go in the evening one day with my photography backpack, with all my gear, and I go up the stairs over the moat. I felt I was in a video game, I reached these humongous doors with brass knockers and I'm knocking.

Not joking, this old man opens the door, and he's asking me what I need and then I open with, "Hi, I'm an American student studying food in Syria." And like it has worked in so many other contexts, he's sort of guard went down, he opened the door invited me for coffee, and I was able to deliver my ask which is, "Is it possible for me to go up to the top of the citadel and take a picture?"

So he's making the coffee and he's like, "Are you scared of anything?" And I was like, "No, no, not scared, I'll just go and take the picture and come right back down." And he's like, "Not even scared of God?" And I realized he must have been a very pious man, and so I was "Oh, definitely scared of God."

And so we had our coffee and he said, "Okay, you can go take your picture and then come back down." And I'm starting to walk, and because the museum is not regularly open at night, it was not lit at all. I put my hand in front of my face, and I couldn't see it, and I hear some birds flying in the overhead, I don't know if it was bats or owls.

And I came running down and I told Abraham, the gatekeeper, I was like, "Turns out I'm scared of a few things, God and owls." Or bats or whatever those things were. And so we had a good laugh about that, and he was kind enough where I was able to return with a friend of mine. And together, we both went up to the top of the citadel and took this beautiful photo of Aleppo at night.

I was selected to be a Fulbright Alumni Ambassador, so this is a cohort of Fulbright alums, we were selected to go speak to members of Congress about our experience. I asked someone whether it would be appropriate for me to bring some food, and they weren't sure, they were preferring I not do that; they weren't sure we're allowed to feed members of Congress, what the security implications would be.

But I just figured what's the worst that could happen, they could say, "No." And politely decline. And I remember we went to a series of meetings, and I would talk about my experience, but then I would say, "You know what, I could speak for hours about the endless people I met, and the cultural connection we made over food. "But I think it's valuable for us to have this in person."

There's a saying in Arabic, "[foreign language 00:25:27]." Which literally translates into 'Between us bread and salt." And what I about that saying is that on the earlier point that food is more than just calories that we put in our bodies, this saying, this expression validates that; it sort of refers to the bond that's made between people who share a meal.

And so at the end of one of the meetings, I offered to take out some [foreign language 00:25:56], which is the Middle Eastern version of peanut butter and jelly. And what like I about this snack, not only is it incredibly delicious, that I went to six kilos of grape molasses when I was in Syria, but it sort of brings home the point that no matter how different two cultures can seem, there are threads that bring them together.

And I took this out and the former US ambassador to Senegal was in the room, and she sort of get so excited. She raised her hands, "Stop everyone." And she wanted to take a picture of this moment. Her reaction to this food is sort of why I got into this to begin with, that's the reaction I would have throughout my Fulbright experience when people shared a meal.

Not only were Syrians super excited to share their meals with me, but as I continued on with that tradition and I share their food with people in the US, that's what I'm most proud of and that's what I wish more people would have a opportunity to see friends, family, and everyone.

It has given me tremendous context, because this is a very complicated region that has a lot of nuance. And so, on the one hand, I feel very fortunate that I'm able to understand these cultural differences, and I'm able to share those experiences with my friends in the US. To share that broader picture of what this conflict means, and what it means in the context of Syrian society.

At the other hand, it's incredibly frustrating too, to turn on the news and only see this narrative that this is, historically, a war torn region that is destined to always be in conflict. And one pet peeve that I have, and one thing that I to dispel, is that sure the modern context of the Middle East is very rife with a lot of sectarianism, but that's not the history of the Middle East.

This region has been around, people have been living in this area for millennia, and sectarian is sort of a small snapshot of the modern context of the Middle East. There's always been conflict when there's war, but there's also been long stretches of peace in the Middle East, where people coexisted in relative harmony. I don't want to paint a rosy picture either, but the sectarianism that we see today is not the only story that the Middle East has to share.

And I'm fortunate to have experienced some of that, some of the hospitality that I picked up on my Fulbright, and it's something that I continue to share every day. I continue to write about it on social media, and like going back to the earlier point as I think this is a great platform. Of all the negative things that is associated with social media this is, at least, a great platform to, at least, continue having a conversation, a global conversation with people about this very important part of the world.

Oftentimes when we visit places, we are visiting as tourists, and we navigate in this space in a temporary status; we know that we're only going to be there for a week, two weeks. The Fulbright really allows people to have an experience of living in a space and, to me, you get a completely different perspective. And so, to me, it's the accumulation of all these small stories that really make a full experience.

I was visiting some Fulbright colleagues from Aleppo too ... I was going to Damascus from Aleppo and, remember I had this fascination of trying to blend in as a local. So I get into this every opportunity I get to speak Arabic with a local, I get super excited, and I try to pronounce things as naturally as I could. And this must have been six months into my project, so at this point I was feeling pretty confident.

And I get in the taxi cab, and I mentioned the directions of where I'm planning on going, and just those few words the cab driver asked me, "[foreign language 00:30:31]." Asking, "Are you from Aleppo?" and I was just super excited, and not only was I speaking Arabic well, but I was able to pass off as, not a Syrian, but someone from Aleppo. So I was finally picking up on those dialect nuances and pronunciation that really made me feel like someone from Aleppo.

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 Tony Tahhan talked about his time as a Fulbright scholar in Syria, going from table to table and learning all about the culture. 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, you can do that wherever you find your podcasts, 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 Tony, not only for taking the time to visit and share his stories, but for actually bringing us some Middle Eastern peanut butter and jelly, which is every bit is delicious as he describes and which left us hungry for more, frankly.

Tony's writing can be found at AntonioTahhan.com. That's A-N-T-O-N-I-O-T-A-H-H-A-N dot com. Ana-Maria Sinitean did the interview, and I edited this segment.

Featured music was "Poly Coated Red City Theme" by Blue Dot Sessions, "Released" by Josh Woodward, "Reminiscence" by Jamie Evans, "Fishing Around" by the Lead Conan's Quartet, and "[inaudible 00:33:10] Dues" by Dick Wellstood in his [inaudible 00:33:12]. 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, dinner, Syrian.


Season 01, Episode  36 - [Bonus] If They Could See Me Now

LISTEN HERE - Episode 36


We asked high school exchange students from around the world only one question: “Tell us about a time when you said to yourself, ‘I wish my friends or family back could see me now.’”  Their answers will astound you. (Listen to this one with a box of tissues nearby). For more information about American Councils' WYLET program, please visit: https://www.americancouncils.org/programs/workshop-youth-leaders-english-teaching.


Chris: This week, a special bonus episode that emerged from a fortuitous visit I paid to the American Counsel's Office in Washington, DC. For a gathering of foreign students participating in the Workshop for Youth Leaders in English Teaching, or WYLET program.

I met a classroom of engaged and enthusiastic students and when it came time to decide who I would interview, just imagine a room full of raised arms and a chorus of "Me!" So I made them a deal. I would ask each of them one single question, and it would be this question: Tell me about a time in the United States when you said to yourself, 'I wish my friends or family back home could see me now.' Here, then, are their responses. 

You're listening to 22.33 - A podcast of exchange stories.

Sunshine: I used to be such a grumpy person, and I came to America by myself. Like literally left everything behind me, started a new life. People say you can't start a new life, physically you can't start a new life, but literally you have a new family, new school, new friends, everything. So I started a new paper, a new chapter in my book. I was laughing all the time and joking. My host parents say 'Oh, you're always in the same mood, always smiling,' and I wish my parents could see me now because they think I'm the most grumpiest person ever and always disappointed and sad and complaining and negativity... Because oh, fun fact, my host dad, he calls me Sunshine, and I feel like when I come back to Lithuania I'll be a sunshine to everyone, so I'll just spread positivities.

Chris: This week, a woman wrestler, draining three-point buckets, and a eulogy for Gladys. Join us on journeys all over the world to Washington DC, and a collection of small, but life changing moments.

It's 22.33.

Intro Clip 1: (Music) We report what happens in the United States, warts and all.
Intro Clip 2: (Music) These exchanges shaped who I am.
Intro Clip 3: (Music) When you get to know these people they're not quite like you. You read about them, they are people, very much like ourselves and-
Intro Clip 4: (Music) Oh, that's what we call cultural exchange.

Ruby: So, I'm Ruby Mitchell, and I'm one of the teacher-mentors with the WYLET program, so that's the program that's the Workshop for Youth Leaders in English Training. It brings students who are on exchange here with the YES and the FLEX programs so they're already in the US for a one year exchange program and they applied to come and get extra training to be teachers for when they return back to their home countries. So, at the point of this training, they come for one week and they've already been here for eight months, so their English is pretty incredible and they're really lively, they're really fun, and they're from all over the world. And so we have over 25 countries represented here at the workshop.

Alexander: I'm Alexander from Georgia, the country, not the state, and currently I'm hosted in Las Vegas, Nevada. My high school is Basic Academy of International Studies.

Arham: My name is Arham and I'm from Kashmir, India, and I live in Des Moines, Iowa, and my high school is Theodore Roosevelt High School. I'm a senior there.

Sarah: My name is Sarah, I'm from Morocco and I live in Arizona, and I go to Chino Valley High School.

Zeinab: My name is Zeinab, I'm from Tunisia. It's a small, tiny country in North Africa, and I'm hosted in Ohio, Washington, Ohio. It's a suburb of Columbus.

Martina: My name is Martina and I'm from Lithuania. I live in Florida, Marine Island, and I go to Marine Island High School.

Anastasia: Hello, my name is Anastasia with the piano ba and I'm from Ukraine and I'm currently placed in Missouri.

Spire: Okay, my name is Spire from Sukhbaatar province from Mongolia. And I'm hosted in Michigan and I go to high scoring Troy.

Arham: Just a year back I used to be terribly afraid of dogs and cats, if I should say generally animals. We didn't have any pets at our house, we don't have any pets, because that's how it is in most of the households. We are not so fond of pets in Kashmir, and in most of the India. So when I came to the United States, I knew that almost every household has a pet here. But on my application, it was not mentioned that we have two pets in our house. I was so happy to see my host mom, my host brother, and they welcomed me. And then I noticed that there's a dog, and there's a cat, and they were both staring at me.

And as dogs do they try to sniff at you. And the dog came close to me and started sniffing me and it just made me so terrified. And I thought, "Okay, this is it. I can't live in this house because it has animals." And the cat tried to come on my lap and sit on my lap. And it was something that I had never experienced before. I thought that, "Okay, my year in America is not going to be the way I thought it would be." I remember thinking that this is not what I came here for. I expected it to be nice, that I would enjoy and it's my first day and I'm feeling so bad. I'm feeling so disappointed. And I remember I was just thinking that I would contact my coordinator and I would tell her that I don't want to live in this family because it has pets. Then I sat and I thought a lot about it. I thought about my problems that, "Okay, if there is a Problem am I here to run away from those problems, or to face the problems?"

And I really thought about it that okay, maybe this is my chance to get along with animals to start loving animals, because I come from a place where we never get to experience this. So the next day, I went down to the kitchen, it was breakfast time, and the dog was there on leash inside the house. Because my host mom knew that I was afraid of dogs, I tried to get close to the dog and it barked. And it started barking and barking and got me terrified again, and my host mom, what she did is that she set the dog loose, and now the dog was not on her leash, and I stood up and I had to go to the kitchen to get a glass of water. And I was in the kitchen and the dog came and just stood next to me. And I'm like, "Okay, this is my chance. Now I can get close to the dog, maybe pet the dog," It came closer to me and tried to sniff me again.

But I was not that prepared at that time and I started running. I'm running in the house, and I'm being chased by a dog and I'm shouting. I'm shouting my host mom's name, "Please come and help me, please someone catch the dog. I don't want to die. The dog is going to kill me." I remember saying it, yes, it's funny now. My host mom, she got the dog and I was saved, I didn't die. The next day we were watching a show on TV. I remember I was sitting on a rocking chair, next to me was my host brother, my host mom and the dog. They were sitting on the floor and my host mom, she was petting the dog. And I don't know, out of somewhere it just occurred to me that I should go and sit near the dog. And I started petting it. The dog looked at me, Gladys, my dear dog, my best friend, I should say. She was such a wonderful friend. I really love her.

And she started licking my face. Then she lovingly put her head on my lap. And that was the time when I was the happiest person on earth. Because it was my fear, and at that time, it was like, okay, I have overcome my fear, one of the greatest fears of my life. That was the time I thought to myself, "Okay, my mom and my parents, they should see me here because they would be so happy for me." And I was really proud of myself because it just happened in two days, in 48 hours. And Gladys, our dog she actually became my best friend here. We lost her after one month in a car accident. That was really sad for me, because she was the first dog who is so close to me and I love her. She will always be there with me in my memories. And I'll always love her.

Spire: For me, coming to America was my dream and I used to watch NBA games with my dad and friends. It's like one of the best things that we spend our free times. So finally I came here. I tried for JV basketball team here, and I worked really hard doing push ups 400 times a day. And finally that first day came I went to the court and I was so nervous. I was so excited. And in first one minute, I made one two point shot. And in another one minute I made three points shot. And next two minutes I made another two points shot. And finally I went to the bench and my coach hugged me and he said he's proud of me and I realized it's like my dad and my friends and my relatives was there. They were there it would be like the best moment of my life.

Sarah: I played three sports in my school. My second sports was wrestling. And actually I was the first girl to wrestle in Chino Valley High School. How did that begin? People were asking me what do you want to play? Like what's your next role where we want to do because actually going to do one on like experience as much support as they can. I was like," I still don't know. I'm thinking about basketball. Maybe softball maybe I don't know." And then I thought about wrestling is like, "Oh, I've never done wrestling before. I don't even know if we had wrestling in Morocco. [inaudible 00:12:11] now wasn't just for boys. We don't have a girls team in Chino Valley. I was like, "No way we should make one. Why not? Why? Just give me one example why can't girls wrestle? Look, no, there's no way." So I spent two weeks I was looking to go to wrestle, are girls able to wrestle? Why cannot girls wrestle and all that kind of stuff? And I had found no reason. Girls do wrestle. There's nothing to stop them.

So I went to my coach, I love you because we played soccer and he was a really good coach. He inspired me in a way that I couldn't do sports besides wrestling. And I said, "I do want to wrestle this year," And he said, "Are you sure? We don't have any girls on the team." I was like, "Coach, this is my exchange year, my only year that I could wrestle. I would have no chance. No other opportunity to wrestle." I started wrestling the first week. The first two weeks were really hard not seeing any girl around me. Not seeing now just mean boys and so it's kind of like weird so what I decided I was talking to girls about wrestling, "Hey I think you should wrestle. Hey, I think you're strong. You're supposed to be... I think we should wrestle."

So I made up the team of six girls in wrestling, and that was my history in Chino Valley High School, the first girl to wrestle for Chino Valley high school and to make up a team of Chino Valley. I had great. I made it to sectionals I first wrestled two boys because the first two weeks I was the only girl. I wrestled two boys and was like, "No, I'm not doing this. I gave up. I can't wrestle boys. I lost in like 30 seconds. After that was thinking about girls wrestle, why can't girls wrestle? So I talked to my friends at school, "Hey, we should wrestle." And so I lost so many matches. So, so, so many matches in like two seconds, three seconds, four seconds, but I never stopped. My coaches inspired me, is like, "Hey, you did this. You begin this, never forget about that. It's not the end of the world. You will make it someday." And so my first win, it was, I will never forget my first win.

That feeling you have when the referee like, "Put your hands in the air, Sarah you won. And people are clapping and my friends are come to the man hugging me. That was really amazing. I did good. I made it to sectionals. But I was fourth so I didn't go to state but for me that's the biggest win. The biggest win ever. And so for the banquet where all the parents were with the kids, where everyone is watching you or your coaches are really proud of you, proud of what you've become. I walked in like everyone was with their parents holding flowers. I was by myself and I remember how my mom back home encouraged me to do wrestling. She said, "Go for it. I encourage you, there's something you will never do."

And then in that moment everyone stood up for me and they said my name, "Hey, this is Sarah from Morocco. The first girl to wrestle in Chino Valley High School without her we would never have a girls wrestling team in Chino Valley High School knows like, my heart was running, beating so fast and my coaches were hugging me. Everyone was crying. I was like, "I wish my family and friends were here to see me."

Zeinab: So back home school is very competitive. We focus a lot on academics like sport is not a big deal. It is just a class, basically a gym class that we have once a week. Most of the students would just skip it to study a little bit more. It's not a big deal back home. And when I came here for some reason that I totally don't know, I decided to run cross country. One of the hardest things. I remember for the first two weeks, everyone would do running eight miles a day and I would die after two miles and then I think three weeks after that we had a race, we had to meet in my school. And it was a five K, which I think 3.1 miles kind of was my first real race, I would say marathon. Since I had one back home and I went there with my friends. It was a happy run thing.

But my friends and I just decided to stop in the middle of the marathon and had ice cream in a cafe and then finished running. So that was my first serious one. I remember waking up in the morning, I was so stressed, I had to eat some bread, and proteins and no moot because otherwise you would not be able to run well. And I was stressed for the whole day, and we had to prepare with the friends and then cheer for the teammates who are running before us and stuff. And then we went to warm up and I was so stressed. Then we started the race and it was the longest time of my life.

So basically my coach was there and before we started running, he was like, "You're going to see me after each miles." So I would know after the first mile that here I'm like, almost halfway through and then after the second one oh, I'm basically done. But I kept on running and running and running and I never saw him. Because I skipped him. I didn't see him when I finished my first mile. And then my thought was, "Oh my gosh, why is that so hard? This is not what we did in practice. This is like super long right now."

It was in October, I think it was super sunny, super hot. I thought I was going to die. I was like, "Okay, fine now, I'm going to be dead and I will never see my mom again." So yeah, but then I don't know how I kept on running. I was like, "Okay, let's see. Worst case scenario I would walk." While walking is the worst thing you can do. You can never walk. I remember getting so tired. And then people started passing by me, I was like, "No, I need to catch up with them." But then that could never happen. Like my body is not functioning anymore. I saw my coach, and he was like, "What are you doing? You have only one mile left." And my expression changed completely because like, I was thinking that I was... I didn't even finish the first mile, but then I was more than halfway through.

And then I zoomed and I passed like 50 people in front of me. And I was like, "Oh my gosh, I have all this energy left, what am I going to do with it?" Because I was saving my energy at first I didn't know. And then I zoomed, then I passed a lot of people so I was just so cool. Then my host parents were there and I didn't know that they were coming but they came to cheer and they were taking videos of me running and I was almost crying at first, but then I was... Then my coach came. He gave me a hug. He was like, "I would never expect that. That was just like an awesome feeling. I thought, "Oh, if my parents were around that would be great." Just because it's not something that I would do back home. It's something that I will never forget.

Alexander: My friends and my family knows me as a person who doesn't really likes doing anything extra, especially that involves nature, and going outside and something dirty. Here, I've changed in every single way I've known myself. And maybe over than a month ago, I went on this trip to Hawaii, and we do a lot of extremely outgoing stuff, including nature that I never thought would ever do. And one of the most memorable ones was the farm volunteering service that we did. We went to this local farm and helped the farmer to push the malt together, to make the roast that were needed for the plantations.

So we basically were throat deep into the mud, pushing this dirt all over the place. And I would never, ever imagine myself doing something like that, for sure my friends or relatives never think that Alex Rocco would do it. So I thought that this is not me. I remember myself six months ago, I wasn't doing that. I would never even touch anything dirty. But now I was standing in the mud right to the throat. So I was proud of myself that I left my comfort zone and saw something different and it's amazing, but I really enjoyed it. You would think that it's dirt, who would enjoy standing there? But the time, the people, the place everything just was perfect.

I realized that leaving in your comfort zone might be a little bit uncomfortable. But in the end, it changes the way you look at everything. It changes the way you appreciate the stuff you have. Sometimes you need to leave your comfort zone to see who you truly are, and to progress and develop as a person.

Ruby: So Wednesday evening is traditionally an energizer evening and we were leaving the office. Everyone is dead tired, we push it the schedule is hard and we're walking down the street and thinking of what games are we going to play? And we get to the park and we lead a few games. But then Tom looks at me and he says, "We should get ice cream." And so we organize the students and we walk down to Georgetown. And of course, as a big group, it's pretty hard. It's Wednesday evenings, there's not a lot of people, but you take 33 people to one ice cream place and the line is long, no matter what. So I ended up breaking off with a group and we walked back up and around and backtracked. And we ended up at Georgetown scoops. And it was just the five of us from five different countries. And we're getting ice cream and crepes. And they were really excited to finally sit down and talk with each other.

It was a little round metal table and one of the girls is blind. And so I was describing the evening to her, I was just telling her, "Oh, there's Christmas lights in the bushes," And she's asking about, the buildings just like the outbreak, right. And again, they're all kind of together and painted in different colors. We're sitting there talking, and I realized we start talking about friendship. And we talk about our expectations and what it's like to live in America. And I was sharing with them some things about my own life about being friends, or finding friends and what that was like for me at their age, their wisdom and their insight into those situations was just mind-blowing.

And I remember looking up at the sky at one point and seeing the stars and just kind of feeling this night air and realizing there is absolutely nowhere else in the world that I want to be right now. I want to be with these students sitting here just talking over ice cream for as long as I possibly can. And I am the luckiest person in the world to get to be sitting here and talking with them in this moment.

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 Watts, 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 US government funded international exchange programs.

This week, we heard from students from all around the world who were in Washington DC as part of the wildlife tour, the workshop for youth leaders in English teaching, which is implemented by American councils. These students were specially selected from students in US high schools as part of either that Kennedy Luger Youth Exchange and study for Future Leaders exchange respectfully known as YES and FLEX. 

For more about why that flex, yes and other ECA exchange programs check out eca.state.gov Please Subscribe to 22.33 you can do so wherever you find your podcasts and we'd love to hear your feedback.

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/22.33.

Special thanks this week to Alexander, Arham, Sarah, Zeinab, Martina, Anastasia, Spire, and Ruby for enthusiastically sharing their stories. I did the interview and edited this segment.

Featured music was "Sylvester and Grey Leaf Window" by Blue Dots Sessions, "Rachel" by How The Night Came, and "Moving On Up", "Log Jam", and "Stuck Dream" by Paddington Bear. End credit music is "Two Pianos" by Tagirljus.. 

Until next time.  


Season 01, Episode 35 - Blind Stories with Marcos Lima

LISTEN HERE - Episode 35


A blind soccer player and snow skier talks about living life without limits. Marcos visited the United States as part of the Global Sports Mentoring Program. For more information about his GSMP exchange experience visit: https://globalsportsmentoring.org/global-sports-mentor-program/emerging-leaders/marcos-lima.


Chris: To say that growing up blind has not kept you from doing extraordinary things would be an epic understatement. From building a career as a blind soccer player to downhill skiing, you created a life dedicated to knowing what you wanted and going for it. Now, what you want is to help others understand that limits can be pushed and being told you can't do something is not for someone else to decide.

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

Marcos: When you're a Brazilian, we are born playing football, even when you are inside of the moms, you are just kicking.

Chris: This week, a soccer ball and a plastic bag, the advantage of skiing blind, and using personal stories to give others hope. Join us on a journey from Brazil to the United States, breaking barriers all along the way.

It's 22.33.

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

Marcos: My name Marcos Lima from Brazil, and I take parts in GSMP Program, Global Sports Mentoring Program. I am journalist. I work on communications projects for breaking barriers about people with disability.

I'm blind since I was kid, and I play blind football for many years. I was the first Brazilian to ski on the snow, and I use communications, and I use my life and my experience to tell about people with disability. I have a YouTube channel with over more than 4.1 million of views. My project is named Blind Stories, that in Portuguese is histórias cegu. It's a way that I find to communicate to people who doesn't know about people with disability because I strongly believe that communication can break barriers about disability. Everyone has prejudice against people we don't know. If you know things, you don't have prejudice anymore.

To be in United States is a different thing for me. I never thought I would travel to United States and that I would be invited for United States to talk about my job, to talk about things I strongly believe. When you are here, you realize that everyone is a person, and we are more equals than difference.

I didn't expect or I didn't think about Americans could be so friendly, and I felt really welcome. When you try to come to United States, you have to pass first many procedures, visa, many forms. Sometimes, you feel as you're not welcome, but when I came here for the first time, I felt really welcome.

So lovely were the people who were around me, and I didn't expect to receive so many love because, in Brazil, we are very touching people. We are very hot people. When you get someone and you hug and you kiss and you were touching. I always heard that United States people don't like to be touched, then people don't like to be hugged. Take care, you cannot just touching people. Here, I understand, and I knew people that they are really lovely persons, and they are like Brazilians, and they love, and they do, and they hug. They are warm people like us.

GSMP was a big opportunity to me because I spent 35 days in United States by myself. I was by my own, and it was personally a challenge because, when you are build, unfortunately, you depend more on people because you cannot do everything by yourself. It is a kind of challenge, of course, but it should be a professional challenge as well. I had 17 colleagues from all around the world, and they have incredible projects, and I could learn a lot from them. It was a big opportunity to present my projects.

My project is a communication, and it's named Blind Stories. I use storytelling methodology, and from my experience from my life from my stories, I discuss disability and difference and prejudice, discrimination, bullying. It was great when my project was select the best one. I think it's important, not only for me, not only for Brazil, it could be important for the world too.

I have been develop it through the years. I love to do that because it's a way to communicate to people, children, teenagers, adults, seniors. It's really nice when you see things changing. For example, I'm used to go to schools, and children, they ask everything. I heard more than once from children like 10 years, "Hello, my name is John, and I would like to know if you don't think about kill yourself." That's something heavy when you heard from children, but why? Why some child do this kind of question? Because he's not used to see people with disability in a positive way, he's used to face people with disability like we are just needing things.

I present myself as a protagonist because I'm protagonist of my life. I present myself as a guy who travel, who likes traveling, who likes writing, who is graduating in one of the best universities in Brazil. 20 minutes, half an hour after, the same child who did this question would like to take picture with me, that I can fill in his netbook, not because I'm the best one, not because I'm pretty who are not seeing it, but I'm not pretty, and just because he never saw a people of disability in a positive way. I can see that it change minds. My job change mind of people. Three years ago, I decide that I would like to talk to more people. When I do conference, I used to do it for 20, 50, 100 persons. When I talk in YouTube, I can do it for millions. This inspire me to create a YouTube channel.

Children pay attention because it's different from the message that they are used to receive. When I talk to them, I talk about my life, I talk about my difficults, about things I got, things I didn't get. I convinced them I'm not best or worse than them. I'm just equal. I have difference. They have difference among them as well. When you face the difference as a positive thing, you just learn from the difference. When you face difference as a bad thing, you fight against it, and so I convinced them that they could face their own difference and the difference among them as a positive thing that the children like so much because I do it in a funny way, in a soft way, and so they pay attention.

Through the years, I have been realized that I'm blind, but I'm more things. I have been realized, for example, when I had the opportunity to become the first blind Brazilian to ski at the snow, I have been travel to Czech Republic because, in Brazil, we have no snow. I did something that 99% of Brazilian never will do. I think this because I had accessibility, and I didn't have prejudice, and so I realized that my problem is not my disability. My problem is that the world where I live is not prepared to me and to necessities of people with all kinds of disability. When you realize that, you conclude that disability, my blindness explain me as a person because of lack of accessibility and big prejudice, but the disability don't define who I am.

When I was kid, I studied in a school for blind people, and we pass half of day playing football. We didn't have the special balls, and so we have a normal ball, and we put it inside of a plastic bag. This one from supermarket. When the ball is inside of it, you just can play. We heard the sound of the plastic bag. Every day, we didn't care if it was raining, if it was 100 degrees. We didn't care about anything. We just would like to play football.

Afterwards, I could know this blind soccer. I'm talking about football, soccer. It changed my life because practicing sports is so nice and so important for everyone. When you are blind, you are used to hear from people that you cannot. When I was playing football, I figured out that I could. Yes, we can. We can play. If you can play, we can run. If you can run on the court, you can walk on the street. It means a lot for someone who is hearing that we cannot do things. I play football for many years, in national, international tournaments. It helped me a lot in my development as a person.

Actually, a friend of mine, he invited me to take part in a workshop of skiing for people would work with people or persons with disability. I didn't know even snow. I never had thought on snow. It was a challenge for me, and I love challenge. When you have some disability, when people doesn't expect too much from you, if you're skiing, if you do some hard things people pay attention, and people can see you in a positive way.

I have many classes. I cannot just imitate people. Many things you do, all of you do during a day, you're just imitating people because you see how it looks like, and you do the same. When you're blind, you cannot just imitate people because you're not seeing, and so some process, they took a long time not because we have some problems in our brains, it's just because 85% of things that someone receives as information is from vision, is from sight. I need to create ways to work over it. When I skiing for the first time, my thoughts was, "That's nice being blind because I cannot see how high is it."

Sometimes, and I think most of times, there is nothing physically who doesn't allow you to do something. The difficulty is inside of you. When you understand that, you have just a difficult. That's not an impairment completely. You can do things.

My main goal in my videos, I'm not talking directly to people with disability because, in my mind, they know about things I'm trying to say. My target is the society in general, but I receive many message from people with disability, and they tell me, "Watching your videos, now I know I can do more," or that's even more emotional when moms write to me and tell that, "I have a baby and he or she is blind, but now I know that he can do a normal life. Thanks for your videos." When I have the sensation I can help people, even people I don't know personally, I think I'm doing something great for me and for the world.

The main thing about disability is, first of all, everyone is a person, everyone is a human being. Disability, everyone has one. Mine disability is just considered serious because we are living in a world that, really, sight works for people who can see. When you understand that everyone has a kind of disability, you can look as you are better than this person. This is the first step I think.

There is no problem about having prejudice because everyone has, everyone is prejudice when you don't know each other. The problem is when you turn it to discrimination. Here in GSMP, had opportunity, for example, to get to know people, Muslim people that I never had the opportunity to know before, and I had many prejudice. I thought I wouldn't tell something or even touch because I need to touch people to guide me, but they are really open, and girls, they teach me a lot about tolerance.

I'll never forget, yeah, during the Easter holiday, and in Sunday, we went to the church, and the Muslim girls went to the church as well, and they watched the service. During the service, they was just telling me, "This kind of things is in our Quran as well. Things kind of things ..." In the end, I realized that the religions can be different, but persons are the same. I think it's best lesson that someone can have from the world where we live.

In Brazil, I have many friends who can see, and they told me, "I'm not courageous enough to go by myself or to do it with no one." I always tell them, "Okay, but I have no other chance, or I do it or I not do it." I always will do something. I think they can inspire by me because they tell me ... They are used to tell me, "I can see, and I never would travel as you do, alone." For me, it's funny because I had no other choice.

Being afraid of trying new things, it's something very common in people because, every day, when I decide to not stay on bed and go around, go outside from my home, I'm facing new things, even on the way from my home to the subway that I do every single day, every day is different because I cannot see what is five-meter away from me. I think it's natural. I face difficults in a positive way because if difficults could destroy my confidence, I not even went out from home.

Being GSMP changed me as a person. It changed, of course, it's empowered me as a person. If I can do that, I can do everything. When I came back to Brazil, I noticed that I was more independent. I was used to go to some places with people, and now, I go by myself because I think to myself, "Okay, you were able to go to United States and to spend 35 days there, you can do everything." This is the first point. When I noticed that Americans, pay attention, that American like, that Americans could love my projects as I do, I understand that it could be bigger than I imagined. I really start to believe, strongly believe that I can achieve more people. I think it's the best.

I would like, in five years, to be on my seventh GSMP. I really would like to stay doing my conference, my speech, not only in Brazil, but outside and knowing people and help and to transform minds and perceptions, not only about people with disability but about difference and breaking barriers.

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.

This week, Marcos Lima discussed his time in the United States as part of the Global Sports and Mentoring Program or GSMP. 

For more about sports diplomacy 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 get some feedback from you. You can write to us at ecacollaboratory@state.com. 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 in our webpage at eca.state.gov/2233.

Special thanks this week to Marcos for his stories and inspiration. I did the interview and edited this segment.

Featured music was "Rally," "Plaque," "Open Flames," "One Quiet Conversation," and "On Three Legs," 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 34 - You Can Always Count on Music with Harpeth Rising

LISTEN HERE - Episode 34


Coming from different musical traditions, playing instruments unknown to each other, the American music trio Harpeth Rising and audiences in Cambodia and Singapore came together over the love of the sounds created by strings.  And once the common language was unlocked, the connections came quick and ran deep.  This episode features the music of Harpeth Rising, including two exclusive “little nook” performances. The band toured Asia as part of the American Music Abroad program. For more information about AMA visit: https://amvoices.org/ama.


Chris: The three of you go halfway around the word with a violin, a cello, and a banjo. With the violin and cello, you affirm common approaches and similar sounds, even when everything around you looks and sounds different. But your audiences have mostly never seen a banjo before. In this case, what you affirm is the common level of music. You realize that music never lets you down. You're listening to 22.33, a podcast of exchange stories.

Jordana: We climbed to the top of a mountain where one of the holiest temples in Cambodia sits, with a group of university students who gave us some history and some information about the temple at the top. But when we got to the top, after us, a monk was climbing the stairs. There was also another older gentleman who seemed to be accompanying him, and the older man got up first, and then was waiting for the monk, and he said something to the monk and the monk laughed. One of the students translated that the old man had teased the monk for being too slow to get up the stairs, and everyone laughed. It was a very, very universal and joyful feeling that humor, like music, is something that transcends your environment, no matter how serious a place you may be in, or how holy the person or the place might be. You can still tease a monk. And it was a great moment.

Chris: This week, the difference between a violin and a fiddle. The super group [Mecha 00:02:06] Rising. Healing a country through the arts, and an exclusive little nook performance. Join us on a journey from the United States to Singapore and Cambodia in learning that anything can be something. 

It's 22.33.

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

Maria: Hi, my name is Maria Di Meglio. I'm the cellist of Harpeth Rising, and I'm from Brooklyn originally, although now I call Columbus, Ohio, home.

Michelle: Hi. My name is Michelle Younger. I play banjo and guitar for Harpeth Rising and I'm originally from Charlottesville, Virginia.

Jordana: My name is Jordana Greenberg and I'm a violinist and songwriter for Harpeth Rising. I'm originally from Ontario, Canada, and now I live in Cincinnati, Ohio.

Jordana: We're a music group, a band that's been touring and performing full-time for about eight years. International touring has always been a big part of our identity and growth as musicians. One of the first things that we did actually as a band was go overseas, and so we found out about this program and were really excited to become a part of it. I know that for me personally, being from Canada and moving to the United States, even though that's not an enormous cultural shift, it was enough of one, especially as a kid, that I feel like I've been using music as my best form of communication for most of my life. So, the idea of the cultural exchange and the way of using music to interact with and understand other cultures felt really exciting to us and like something that would be familiar and also provide us with the opportunity for some new growth.

We ended up being sent to Cambodia and Singapore, and I don't think we could've imagined going anyplace more wild and wonderful, or different to us, or different from each other in a lot of ways.

Michelle: I noticed that a lot of American music that had made its way over to both countries that we visited was top 40s pop music, which is honestly not something that I listen to a lot. Having the opportunity to play our version of American music for people who have not heard anything like it was really fun, especially with playing the banjo. In Cambodia especially, not a lot of people have heard of the banjo, much less seen one before. I've never really been in a context where people don't know what a banjo is, but they were just as unfamiliar with the banjo as I was with their traditional instruments.

Jordana: I think one of the revelations for me of the very first few days of the trip was that I had never particularly thought about music as being western. I think because we're influenced so deeply by classical music, but one of the first things that we did in Cambodia was a workshop with these incredible young string students, 10 to 17. We give workshops sometimes in the U.S., and one of the things we like to do is talk about the different genres that influence our music. Classical side is one thing, and that was something that these kids were already intimately familiar with. They were studying classical music. And the other side of it is the very wide world of folk music.

I grew up in this little town in Southern Indiana that has a really rich old time music culture, and so in additional to studying classical music, I was also learning old time fiddle tunes. So, we like to ask kids, "Do you know the difference between a violin and a fiddle?" The answer, by the way, is really that it's not a different instrument. It's how you play it. We were going to play something that sounded really classical and say, "Doesn't that sound classical to you? Doesn't that sound like a violin?" And then we were going to play something old time influenced and say, "And that's an example of fiddle music." And a translator who spoke absolutely amazing English was confounded. She hadn't heard the word fiddle, and I in the moment couldn't think of a way to describe what it could be, and it was this moment for me where I just thought, "In this context, here in this country, we are so western."

Maria: In Cambodia, they speak Khmer and that was a very different language. This was my personally first time to Asia and I had never experienced a language so different. We learned a few phrases in Khmer. For example, we were sound-checking and I sound-checked quote unquote in Khmer, but really all I said was, "Check [foreign language 00:08:20]." Just speaking some numbers, and the musicians on stage started clapping. They appreciated it so much, and just to get that kind of immediate feedback, and that sort of warmth, and it was overflowing.

Jordana: In that first workshop, I was immediately struck by the degree of trust that is engendered by playing music, and I think especially by playing original music, that when you're agreeing to open yourself up in that way to people, they respond by opening themselves to you, and that the language can make you have to think more creatively about how to do that, but it definitely doesn't stand in the way. And that there was a theme throughout the entire trip in both countries of feeling like we were in these incredibly foreign places and that is we had just come as tourists to look at things and not be a part of them, that we wouldn't be experiencing these connections and this trust.

In that same first workshop in Cambodia, I tentatively asked the students if they like to sing, and that's a question that in the United States, if you ask students, is often met with discomfort or eye rolls, even, but these kids, immediately a group of them actually came up onto the stage. I asked them if they wanted to learn a chorus of our music, and they were so, so enthusiastic to the idea. I was trying to teach it to them, and they're pronouncing words that probably don't mean anything to them, but they were so willing to try it, and to do it. And so they're singing this song back to us, and I thought, "I want to do that. I want to be as brave as these kids are right now in being willing to learn what they have to teach us."

Jordana: (singing)

Maria: And one of the touching moments was seeing how people handled my cello. We got to a school to do a workshop and the security guard, he saw it and he put it in a shopping cart, and he insisted on strolling it. He didn't want anyone to carry it. He's like, "No, no, this ..." And he didn't know necessarily what it was, but he knew that it was special and he was going to take very good care of it.

A very memorable experience was working with a local percussion ensemble that was all female in Cambodia, and this was for our final performance. Their name is [Mechia 00:14:39]. I believe their name means strong woman, and [inaudible 00:14:44]. And they were strong women. Their music was so fascinating because it was such a unique blend of traditional sounds with their own original creativity blended in, and vocally, they had such a wide range of sounds, vocalizations, trills, melismas, that you don't find in western music. And I found that that combined with their percussion gave me goosebumps. I had never experienced something like that, feeling the percussion literally in your body as you're sitting there. It was a very special performance and workshop because we were at a school with a lot of deaf children, and so we were all sitting on the floor together, feeling the vibrations from these women playing percussion, and you could feel it in your body and also just the impact of these women who look fierce and strong. You can tell that they're giving it 1000%. It was very inspiring, very humbling to watch.

And after that performance, we were talking to each other, and they didn't know English. My Khmer is limited to numbers, and so I showed them my cajón. It's an instrument that I play a little unconventionally. I don't play it with my hands, as many cajón players do. I play it with my foot, and I had a reverse pedal, and I heel strike it with my right foot. So it's a little unusual, and so I gestured to them and to the cajón and I sat down and I played some beats on it, and I showed it to them. And then I stood up and immediately one sat down, started playing it with her foot, and then another used her hands and played the cajón, and there were two other members that started clapping and singing. So, in like five seconds, we were jamming on a song.

It was amazing, and the intuition which with ... you know, I showed them the drum for maybe five seconds and then they just jumped in and created something that I had never actually thought, oh, maybe two people could play the cajón. I just sort of thought, I play it with my foot, and we play the cello and we have our instruments. We sing, we have foot percussion, but I think that one of the highlights of this trip was seeing what we do, and then seeing it through the lens of these other musicians. At the end of the night, they pointed towards themselves and they said, "Mechia Rising." So they sort of combined our band with their band.

Michelle: In Cambodia, we worked with students with disabilities. I'm pretty sure that there's not a lot of support for persons with disabilities. This music and arts and dance program, it really struck me, and it's something that's going to stay with me for a while, the fact that there is this arts program, and using arts as communication and as healing and as fulfilling part of life. Again, not a lot of people in Cambodia know of the banjo, and there was this one boy there who was blind, and he wanted to feel it, and so I gave it to him, and he strummed it and he was tapping it, and he was loving it. I just sort of got goosebumps, and it's a special moment.

Jordana: Some of the younger kids played us Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star. It was such a lovely moment for me because I also teach kids about their age, and I teach them the same music, and I teach them the same variations, and I'm looking at these kids. They were playing amazingly, with beautiful sound, and their posture and their hand position, and I thought, "I am connected to them and to their teacher from across the world. We are trying to do the same thing in different languages, in different places." People always like to talk about how small the world is, and I don't usually feel that way. I usually feel like the world is enormous. But in that moment, I felt like it's just ... There are certain things that you can count on and music is one of them.

Jordana: (singing)

Michelle: One thing that struck me was how shocked people were or impressed that we were playing original music. There's not a lot of original music in Cambodia. A large part of that is due to the fact that a lot of the artists and musicians were either exiled or killed during the Khmer Rouge. There are organizations like Cambodian living arts and others that are trying to bring back and preserve original Khmer music and culture and arts and dance. There's this mission of arts and music to heal the country that is still in healing, and it made me want to explore Khmer traditional music, Khmer original music.

Being in Cambodia and [inaudible 00:25:04] at the temples, getting a tour with a woman who works with an organization to restore them, also knowing that the American government is working on restoring one of the temples was very touching, to know that that is something that is very valued, very important, and very special. And I think it is kind of a sacred place when you're there and you're in that moment, feeling that this is maybe not my culture, it's not my religion, but I feel that this is moving, and that this is special, and there's that gratitude of being in that sacred place and just wanting to share that. And I think that the temples was definitely a moment in which we felt if we could bottle it, you know, and be able to share that.

Also in Cambodia, we witnessed a tea ceremony and they explained to us the process of making tea, and they made us tea, and they educated us about it. One of the things that I hope that I can take home in my own life is that care to the small things and that anything, anything can be something. It's what you put into it, you know? Your heart and your soul, and it was very beautiful seeing that in these countries of how people, they take the smallest things, the small things in life that maybe we overlook, and they magnify it, and in doing that, it really elevates the overall experience.

Jordana: One of the challenges that we were charged with on this tour was to talk about women's rights and female empowerment, both in terms of music and life. I was intimidated by the idea of representing our gender, and specifically I think a little intimidated by the idea of doing it through the context of our music and through my songs. I can be a little bit dodgy sometimes about talking about where my music comes from, because I use the form and the art of songwriting itself as the tool for expression. So then explaining it beyond that has always felt difficult to me, and I do sort of avoid it

In the United States, or European countries that are English speaking, I think a lot of the time, the songs explain themselves. But in countries where English is not even a second language, I knew that I was going to have to be more honest with my audiences and that I was going to have to do it in a way that would explain the song through not only my own words, but then through the filter of translation. It forced me to clarify to myself some things that the songs were about, and are about, and some places that they came from. It was this sort of courage that I took again from the musicians and the people who we interacted with, and their bravery in what they were giving to us was something that I was drawing from when I was asked to talk about those things.

I did feel in that moment like I wished my loved ones could be hearing what I was saying, because I want them to know it, but it took this enormous journey and this completely foreign environment for me to be able to do that. I don't know if I'm going to be able or willing to recreate it.

Jordana: (singing)

Chris: 22.33 is produced by The Collaboratory, an initiative within the U.S. State Department's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, better known as ECA. My name's Christopher Wurst. I'm the director of The Collaboratory. 22.33 is named for Title 22, Chapter 33 of the U.S. Code, the statute that created ECA, and our stories come from participants of the U.S. government-funded international exchange programs.

This week, we heard from Jordana Greenberg, Maria Di Meglio, and Michelle Younger; collectively, the amazing folk trio Harpeth Rising, who shared stories and songs from their recent trip to Cambodia and Singapore as music envoys participating in the American Music Abroad program, or AMA. For more about AMA and other ECA exchange programs, check out eca.state.gov. 

We encourage you to subscribe to 22.33. Can do so 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-L-A-B-O-R-A-T-O-R-Y @state.gov. Photos of each week's participants and complete episode transcripts can be found at our webpage at eca.state.gov/2233. 

Very special thanks to Jordana, Maria, and Michelle for taking time to tell us their stories and play us their songs. You can find out more about the band at harpethrising.com. I did the interview and edited this segment. 

All of the music you heard was Harpeth Rising, including portions of The Highway Man, Eris, and Fortune. The version of In The Singing you heard starts and ends in our little nook, and in between is the version heard on Harpeth's Rising most recent album, Against All Tides. You will also find the song, Drink Of Reddest Wine featured in its entirety. Finally, the song Early Riser was performed live in our little nook, and yes, it gave me goosebumps. 

Music at the top of each episode is "Sebastian" by How The Night Came and end credit music is "Two Pianos" by Tagirljus. 

Until next time.


Season 01, Episode 33 - [Bonus] The Food We Eat, Part 5

LISTEN HERE - Episode 33


More delicious food stories from around the world. Are you hungry yet?


Chris: You know the music and you know the drill. Take a seat, grab some extra serviettes for all the food to come. My name is Chris and I will be your server this week for another bonus food episode, our fifth. This week, a special offer, you can take your audio here or Togo. 

You're listening to 22.33, a Podcast of exchange stories.

Speaker 2: One thing I learned that body language can change in culture, is not only the language. But kind of a lighter note was I was going to get pizza locally, and I wanted chicken, and I didn't speak Bulgarian, but my Bulgarian friends were like, "This will be interesting to see this Kentucky kid order." I was trying to get creative and so I just made a sound that a chicken makes. They still didn't understand me. Then my Bulgarian friend said, "Oh, this is how chicken sounds in Bulgarian." I'm like, "Oh, even the animal sounds are different." And so, sometimes you've got to be creative. Other times you just got to be happy with the pizza that you get.

Chris: This week, "Why do all the American takeout places have the name of my country," asked the guy from Togo. Three words, deep fried Twinkies. Halusky, the Slovakian dumpling experience. Join us on a journey around the world to tickle your taste buds. 

It's 22.33.

Intro Clip 1: (Music) We report what happens in the United States, warts and all.
Intro Clip 2: (Music) These exchanges shaped who I am.
Intro Clip 3: 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-
Intro Clip 4: (Music) Oh, that's what we call cultural exchange.

Speaker 3: The first time that I ate from [inaudible 00:02:21], I surprised to see a bag of Togo, home Togo. I said, "C'mon, people eat my country here because it is home Togo." It's Togo, but it is written T-O-G-O just like my country. I said, "C'mon." People were laughing. It's just I was joking. Also, I found a tea here, which is Tazo. It is T-A-Z-O, which is the name of one of my best friends back in Togo. I said, "C'mon, this is kind of [inaudible 00:03:00] and people drink my friend here." It was just a coincidence. I even took a picture of that tea and sent it back to my friend. He called back and laughed. He was surprised. This is ... I like it.

Speaker 4: When I was working in Kazakhstan, immediately before my [inaudible 00:03:35], I learned that if you have a guest that you want to show extra respect to they'll take the head of a sheep and boil it. Then that person has to cut off pieces and serve it. For instance, if I am the one that's carving the head, I might give you an ear and tell you that I wish that people could hear and take to heart what you have to say. Or I might give you a tongue, so that you speak softly. For an American, the first time that I ever saw that it was really jarring just to see a boiled head.

I remember my boss at the time, when she visited, my colleagues and friends of ours did it for her husband. We knew that it was going to happen and I was telling them, "You can't do this. It's going to be off putting for Americans." I specifically came over to help them cook and they hid it from me in a pot on the back of the stove. I didn't know. He was a good sport about it, her husband was, but it's still off putting to see a giant boiled head.

Speaker 5: I love potatoes, and I love doughy thinks. That is Slovak food, is sausages and potatoes and dumplings. So many different kinds of dumplings that I have never heard of. I asked my students when I first got to Slovakia, "What do you suggest I see or do?" I think teenagers are always like this. They're like, "I don't really care for my home," so they were usually like, "I don't even know why you're here in Slovakia." But they would when pushed, they would say, "You should see the Tatras, the mountains, and you should make sure to enjoy some Halusky," which is their dumplings. So I enjoyed a lot of Halusky. I went hiking a lot, so I did everything they suggested. They also like their castles there. Big fans of their castles.

Speaker 6: Most people probably don't realize, is the importance of food in Ukrainian culture. The famine, 1932-33 caused by Stalin was just a horrific time in their culture. I'm sure that the importance of food certainly, I don't know if it stems from that, but it certainly focuses ... I think somewhere in the Ukrainian psyche it rests, which makes food really important. But they do know how to enjoy food and they really know how to enjoy eating.

I think Ukrainian food is the best food in the world. I'm sure the listeners are going, oh, yeah? And I will tell you, oh, yeah, you got to try it. Now I'm not saying try it in the United States. I'm saying go to Kyiv and try it in Kyiv. It's a tad bit different. I'm fortunate in that my lovely daughter-in-law, her mom is probably one of the best cooks I've ever met in my life. We always go to the village, we bring our sons, Ben and Dan. Ben is known for his eating. Very thin guy, but really eating. So he really impresses them in the village by the amount of food he can consume, which makes you God-like in a Ukrainian mother's eyes.

So I've seen Ben sitting there with piles of chicken wings in front of him. Let me tell you, the chickens and such, when you go to the village, you talk about free-range, no, these chickens they're just running around. I refer to it as, oh, you want chicken tonight? You point at that chicken and the next thing you know ... People go, "Oh, it's not frozen?" I go, "It's never been refrigerated." The chicken is really fresh and because they romp around, they are descended from dinosaurs as you can tell by their size, so a chicken wing in Ukraine is like an entire chicken you would pick up from a rotisserie in a grocery store here.

When [Oxana's 00:08:04] mom sees the pile of chicken wings in front of Ben, it's just an incredible experience for her. As I said, he's super thin, but even Ben has to unbutton his pants, and then go lie down for a while, and then come back for more.

Speaker 7: I think a lot of Arab food has become more popular in recent years here in America, so it was interesting seeing the real authentic humus and falafel and [inaudible 00:08:41] and things like that. But I'm of Indian-American background, so I tend to eat spicier foods. Going to Jordan, there is not a lot of spicy foods. I remember coming back from Jordan and having my mom's food again. It was way too spicy for me after my pallet had adjusted.

In terms of going out to different restaurants and things, it always felt like an adventure because I'd have to plan what I was going to say and try not to mess up, and always asking whoever was speaking to speak shway-shway, slowly, so I could understand. Definitely something that comes to mind is actually a Yemeni restaurant called [Babel Yemen 00:09:22] and the owner was very friendly and there were these gigantic pieces of bread. Yemeni bread is really famous for that. It's kind of charred and huge and takes up half the table. And so, definitely that type of finger food plus the Yemeni curry was really interesting.

But what was more special is that the owner of the restaurant would come and talk to us. We spoke to him in Arabic and told him what we were studying. A few minutes later after he waited at some other tables, he'd come back and ask us to practice his English. It was definitely opportunities like that. One time my host mom made us chicken liver, and it was the first time I had had chicken liver. Unfortunately, usually all of her cooking, I would devour it, but chicken liver, we didn't mesh well together. A Jordanian phrase that people say when a meal is exceptionally delicious is [inaudible 00:10:21], which means oh, God, what deliciousness. I said it pretty much after every meal.

Speaker 8: It was a great opportunity to see the small traditions. For example, marshmallow, and what is it called? The s'mores, so that was the first experience. I loved it. Even when I went back home I took some chocolate with me and the crackers, and I made some for my family back at home with some of my friends. It was a great experience. Even when we ever have some campfires with the local community, with some friends, we're always like, "That's one of the main things on the list."

Speaker 9: In Central Asia, if you're in a coffee shop or something and there are brownies on the menu, I discovered pretty quickly that [Nasiva 00:11:48] loved them and always wanted to order them, but I was always disappointed because they don't quite understand the difference between a brownie and chocolate cake. Theirs, to me, read more caky than fudgy. And so, I promised her I would teach her how to make real brownies. First, I had to teach myself to do it completely from scratch because there's nothing like box mix over there. But then once I succeeded I showed her and now that's the only kind of brownie she'll eat. She won't let anyone order them in a restaurant because it's not authentic enough. That was always really funny to me, especially on her birthday. She didn't want cake, she just wanted a brownie. At midnight on her birthday I made a big pan of them and we put candles in them.

Speaker 10: Okay, so I was told that I just have to try a deep fried Twinkie because that's a Midwest thing. I did try. I tried the fried Twinkie and I tried deep fried Oreo cookies. So [inaudible 00:13:15] love deep fried things. It's like deep fried pickles, that's what I tried as well. It sounded better than it tasted. It was just a hot pickle, but I've tried it all. In general, I do miss eastern European food and I miss some very basic things, I'd say. I tried to look for them. I went to a polish store in [inaudible 00:13:40] where I got a couple of things that I missed. In summer, I'm back at home for three months, so I made a deal with myself. I'm going to eat a lot, everything that I missed for the last nine months. But I'm trying to try. I really love banana bread. This is something I want to take back. I knew about it before, but it's really good here and you make it really good here. Banana bread, that's my thing here.

Speaker 11: I ate something here, as I told you, pumpkin bread. I know pumpkin. We can find pumpkins in our country, but I never knew it could be possible to make any bread with it. Moreover, it is very sweet. I did like it. I liked that one.

Speaker 12: I love food. I feel part of exploring the culture is exploring the food. For example, whenever I travel, I try to look what's the most popular dish in that area. With globalization lots of things became popular everywhere, but still you can find some unique plates. One of the things that I loved was in Chicago when I visited Chicago during Thanksgiving. We'd seen the [inaudible 00:15:31] and then we went and had the pizza, the deep dish. That was unique. I'm amazed how this hasn't been spread all around the world until now. That was one of the best dishes I ever tried. We were there for a few days and we kept ... we're like, "What are we going to eat?" We kept having it over and over. We were not bored of it. It was so special. What else? Texas barbecue, that was also one of the best things. Now I'm getting hungry remembering all these things.

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.

In this episode our taste buds were tempted by Hodabalou Anate, Anna Zubicka, Alyssa Meyer, Annie Erling Gofus, Richie Mathes, Mark Pollins, Meenu Bhooshanan, and Dareen Tadros. We thank them for their stories and their courage to try all of these new things.  

For more about ECA exchanges check out eca.state.gov. We encourage you to subscribe to 22.33 because really where else are you going to get your bonus food episodes and we'd love to hear from you. You can write to us at ecacollaboratory@state.gov. In fact, you can send us your favorite food stories at E-C-A-C-O-L-L-A-B-O-R-A-T-O-R-Y@state.gov.

Chris: Complete episode transcripts can also be found at our webpage at eca.state.gov/22.33. 

Special thanks to everybody for the courage to try the food and the courage to tell their story. 

Featured music during this segment was "Variation Wall Time" by Blue Dot Sessions. Music at the top of each food episode is "Monkeys Spinning Monkeys" by Kevin McCloud. The end credit music is "Two Pianos" by Tagirljus. 

Until next time.


Season 01, Episode 32 - What Would Princess Diana Do with Janet Steele

LISTEN HERE - Episode 32


Sometimes opportunities present themselves in mysterious ways.  When many expats evacuated during a time of political turmoil in Indonesia, this professor not only stayed, she found herself in the middle of a group of journalists that would help lead the country into the future and, during the course of those intense days, change the trajectory of her life. Janet visited Indonesia as a Fulbright U.S. Scholar, for more information about the Fulbright program visit: https://www.cies.org.


Chris: You are an American student acclimating to life in Indonesia at a turning point in their history. When most of the American expat community evacuates, you stay. And suddenly you find yourself the only American among the country's leading journalists and brightest minds. You knew that you had landed in a very special place, and you never looked back. 

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

Janet: In the United States, we maintain the illusion that we are in control of our lives. We have plan. We got the Outlook calendar, we got ... We're in charge of everything. We're comfortable in managing the world to our liking. But in Indonesia, nobody's in control of anything, and I found that that was really good for me; this idea that all kinds of crazy things can happen and I just have to learn to roll with it, and that this actually is probably the way life is for most people in the world. But it was a really important lesson for me, just to know I'm not really in control of anything; that's an illusion.

Chris: This week, what would Princess Diana do? Foregoing an evacuation and finding the story of tempo. Join us on a journey from Virginia to Indonesia to learn, we all have goodness waiting within us. 

It's 22.33.

Intro Clip 1: (Music) We report what happens in the United States, warts and all.
Intro Clip 2: (Music) These exchanges shaped who I am.
Intro Clip 3: (Music) 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 ...
Intro Clip 4: (Music)

Janet Steele: My name is Janet Steele, and I am an associate professor of journalism and mass communication at George Washington University, and I'm also the director of the Institute for Public Diplomacy and Global Communication. I've had two Fulbrights, both to Indonesia, which is unusual because I understand you can very seldom get a second Fulbright to the same place you went before. But I made the case that I was a different person by the time I applied for the second Fulbright. My first one was in 1997 to '98, and I was at the University of Indonesia, and I was teaching in the American Studies program.

I had been dating a man at the University of Virginia, which is where I had taught, and we were having a few problems, and I told him I was hoping to go to Indonesia. And then when I got the letter from the Fulbright Commission in Indonesia, it said I was a finalist. And I remember going to ... I went to see the movie The English Patient here in D.C. by myself, and I remember watching it, and just having this weird flash where I thought, "I'm going to get it. I know I'm going to go to Indonesia and my life's going to be changed forever, and I think probably my boyfriend will break up with me." And all of those things happened.

But in retrospect, that was actually one of the best things that could happen, because Indonesians are such lovely people, and they're very friendly, but when they see two Americans together as a couple, they always assume, "Well, let's just leave the Americans alone. They'd probably rather talk to each other." But because I was there by myself, people found that so strange that they would come up and talk to me. So I really think in some ways, the fact that I was there alone gave me a huge amount of power and connections to people that were really nice.

My best friend gave me a ride to the airport and we found out that Princess Diana had just died, and I guess at that point I was flying an airline that stopped. I think we stopped in Detroit and then we stopped in Tokyo and then in Singapore, overnight in Singapore, and then on to Jakarta. In each place, there was more information about Princess Diana, and everyone would be standing around watching the televisions. So, my arrival was very connected to the death of Princess Diana.

And as soon as I got to Indonesia, people kept saying to me, "You look just like Princess Diana," which of course I don't at all, other than that I'm tall and have light brown hair. So this kept happening, so I go to the University of Indonesia my first day, and one of my colleagues says, "Well, we would really like you to give us a public lecture as part of your Fulbright." And I said, "Sure." And then they said, "We would like you to lecture on Princess Diana." And I said, "I really don't know anything about Princess Diana." But everyone looked so crestfallen. I said, "Well, maybe I can talk about media coverage of Princess Diana." And so I did. It was a huge success, and that was when I realized that yes, I really can lecture on just about anything, and I am so out of my comfort zone here, but I'm just doing the best I can, and hopefully it's going to work.

I found that for me, email was really my lifeline in that not only that I could stay in touch ... And these were the very early days of email, too, so I had a RadNet account and it was dial-up. By the end of that first year, I knew everybody in customer support at the RadNet Office by name. I'd come by with my laptop because half the time it didn't work. I realized no matter what crazy thing happens to me, it's going to make a good story. That even while it was happening, I would be composing emails. I like to write. I'm a writer, and so that was both my journal and a kind of way of framing every crazy thing that happened, because a lot of crazy stuff happens, so that was really good.

I did a lot of traveling that first year by myself, and usually I would take local transportation because I didn't have that much money, and the rupiah was still pretty strong. I remember taking a bus to a beach in West Java, and I had to take several buses and then a motorcycle, and my colleagues at the University of Indonesia just couldn't believe it, that, "You took the bus? The public bus?" And it was always that ... I mean, I knew don't flash money, don't wear fancy jewelry or anything. But I also ... Indonesians are so nice. I would just look sort of pathetic, and I would always find the person who looked friendly and say, "What is the real price of this bus? What's the real bus fare?" And so, people sort of befriended me along the way. It was way outside of my comfort zone. I remember the first time I was riding behind some guy on an Indonesian motorcycle going to the beach, thinking, "No one is going to believe this. This is so far out what I would actually do in my real life."

When I arrived in September, Suharto was still the president and he'd been president for 32 years. There had just been an election. Everyone assumed he would die in office; he would never step down. And over the course of that year, there were more and more protests. It was the Asian economic crisis. There were many, many student protests, all at my university where I was teaching, and so I was at ground zero for all of this. By the end, Suharto resigned and everything changed. It was an incredible year to be there.

The one thing that I actually did I knew I wasn't supposed to do, was I was there on a teaching Fulbright. And at that time, in order to do research, you had to get a permit from the Indonesian government. And they were quite strict that if you were a Fulbrighter and you were there to teach, you were there to teach, no research. Of course I immediately found a research project. Before I had gone to Indonesia, I'd heard Goenawan Mohamed who was the editor of the Indonesian News Weekly Tempo, which had been banned by Suharto in 1994, give a talk. He said, "I don't know why the army should fear us when they're the ones with the guns." And I wrote that down on a napkin, and I always thought about that.

Well, as soon as I got to Indonesia, everyone I met seemed to be connected with Tempo, this magazine that had been banned. And I thought, "This is incredible. How come no foreigners seem to know much about ..." I mean, we all knew it was banned, but I came to realize this magazine was so important. So I started interviewing people. My idea was to write about the magazine that doesn't exist, that Suharto had tried to kill this magazine, but you couldn't kill it. You couldn't kill an idea. And in some ways, it was more powerful in memory.

Also, we were all supposed to be evacuated, and I didn't evacuate. That was probably the bravest thing I ever did, and it wasn't because I was so brave actually. It was just because I knew if I evacuated, that I wouldn't be able to come back until they decided I could come back, and it would be at be own expense, and what was I going to do in Singapore? This was my Fulbright year. And I remember a diplomat called me and she said ... I won't say her name, but she called me and she said, "They can't force you to evacuate. You're not a U.S. government employee."

So, I had already planned a trip to China. I was going to be speaking there, and one of my friends at the Bilateral Commission had my passport because I had to be renewed every three months, and so I told the truth. I said, "I don't have my passport and I'm unwilling to leave without my passport, but as soon as I get it, I promise I will evacuate." And as I hoped, the rioting ended and a couple days later, Suharto stepped down. And I felt very safe. I had a lot of students there who called me and checked on me, so I knew it would be okay. But the interesting thing way, that meant so much to Indonesians, and I didn't even fully understand this until much later. I think the fact that I didn't evacuate, it sort of changed everything. Everybody was so impressed I didn't evacuate. It seemed kind of like a vote of confidence. So, I felt like I really had thrown in my lot with Indonesia, and in some ways, I guess I did.

So I was interviewing people, but I knew I wasn't supposed to be doing this, and I couldn't tell any of my friends at the embassy, because I wasn't supposed to be doing this, and I needed to give them plausible deniability. But I remember right after Suharto stepped down, I had another interview scheduled with Goenawan Mohamed and he told me ... We talked for three hours and I recorded the whole thing, and I just couldn't believe the things he said. At that point, there was a Fulbright conference at Safari Park in West Java and I remember telling the PIO there what had happened, and I said, "This is just incredible." And he agreed, so I knew it was actually okay.

There are very few Americans who write about journalism in Indonesia. There are a couple of Australians who do, and there are a lot of famous Indonesianists here, but I was just so ... You know, they're anthropologists and they're out on these remote islands studying languages and culture. Here I was plopped down right in Jakarta with all of these friends who were journalists at Indonesia's biggest news magazine. So I was right in the thick of things in an incredibly lucky way, and I just knew, nobody gets to do this. It would be as if I were plopped down in New York in the 30s at the Algonquin Hotel and were hanging out with Dorothy Parker and everybody from the New Yorker and they were all my friends and telling me stuff. Nobody had ever written about them before. So, I was really unbelievably lucky to be in the right place at the right time.

It's the prologue to my book on Tempo that I eventually wrote, and it was that three hour conversation with Goenawan Mohamed, because Suharto had just stepped down, and Goenawan ... All the ex-Tempo journalists had met and said they wanted to bring back the magazine, and Goenawan at that point didn't want to be the editor again. He had accepted a position at Columbia University, he was writing the libretto for an opera, and he'd moved on. But he also knew that he really had no choice; that they could never unite around someone else. So, he knew he was going to do it. Even though Indonesia is a majority Muslim country, the great Hindu Epics were still very powerful in imagination, and I had read the Mahabharata. Actually, the comic book version of it. That's true. Comic book, but I'd also read the Bhagavad Gita in English, and I thought, "This is incredible. Goenawan is making a decision just like Arjuna. He doesn't want to fight, but he knows he has to; that it is his destiny. It is his duty."

And I was there, and there was no one else. It was like this three hour interview that I got on tape, and I actually put it in the prologue in my book, because I thought ... Almost word for word, because it was so extraordinary. While it was happening, I just kept thinking, "I can't believe he's telling me these things, and I know he's never told them to anyone else, and I just happen to be in the right place at the right time, and I've been interested in Tempo, and I understand the magazine's importance." And I'd interviewed him a few times before, and he just told me everything, which I feel like that's probably the best thing I've ever written, and it was a great moment.

Chris: Did he read the book?

Janet Steele: Oh, yeah. Everybody at Tempo liked the book. The other thing that was interesting was, after Suharto actually was forced to step down, Tempo Magazine almost immediately got its license back. And so, everybody dropped their other jobs and went back to Tempo after four years, which I found astonishing. But I remember thinking, well, there goes my article, because it's no longer the magazine that doesn't exist. And I always joke, "I cried all the way home on the plane." And then I realized, "Wait a minute. There's nothing to prevent me from going back." Never having been terribly good at math, I had miscalculated my Fulbright year. It was not actually my sabbatical year. I was still eligible for sabbatical, and the dean had recognized that, and he said, "Well, you can have both, but you need to come back here and teach for a year." So I did, and I studied Indonesian and I attended classes and did a lot of reading, so I went back the second year and did the research. And that time, I had a research permit and was completely legit. And by that point, I could speak Indonesian.

The first time I ever lectured in Indonesian, I was very proud of that. I was very nervous about it, and I also knew this is probably a rite of passage, because college professors, you have a personality when you teach. You have a kind of persona and you know when the students are going to laugh and you know how to pitch things and when to pause. And I was afraid that all of that would be lost in Indonesian. But I don't think it was, and in fact, what I hadn't anticipated is that people would just hang on every word I said, because they were so interested. Here's this American who's speaking Indonesians. And Indonesians are so generous about language. It's the kind of thing where you say one or two words and, "Oh, your Indonesian's so beautiful." So they would help me. I'd be groping for a word and they'd be shouting it out from the front row. I still get nervous when I lecture in Indonesian, because you want to make sure you're saying exactly the right thing. I've also learned you have to be careful about humor, because it doesn't always translate well. You need to make sure you say what you think you're saying, that kind of thing.

I had my parents come and visit, and actually by listening to the podcast, I know that a lot of Fulbrighters have their parents come and visit, and that's always a big moment, because you've got often older people. You're not sure how it's going to work. And my dad had broken his ankle and was on crutches, and that was a little bit worrisome. My parents used to joke how I had said to them, and I did say this, "Oh, don't worry. Indonesians are so nice and they like older people," which they thought was just hilarious, but it is actually true. My students at the University of Indonesia had organized this dinner for my parents, and they brought presents and made speeches. My parents were just blown away by this. I was too. All of them came, and it was really wonderful. It was just wonderful.

I remember the moment in Indonesia ... This was again a ridiculous moment. I had been asked by the editor of a newspaper to come and teach English, and I said, "I can't do that. I can't teach English. I'm not an English teacher." But then I thought, "This is a great opportunity to go actually to this news organization and hang around, meet journalists." And this was my first year, when I didn't speak Indonesian. So I said, "Well, I can't go and teach English, but I'm happy to go ... We can have a weekly class on theory and practice of journalism, and it will be in English." So they liked that idea. So I went there. This was quite early on in my Fulbright. I went there thinking, "Oh, these poor Indonesian journalists. They don't really understand how to be good journalists."

And I was so wrong. And I actually think, and since then I've found, that I think every country in the world, journalists know what good journalism is. They may not be free to practice it, but they know. You don't have to ever tell a journalist what good journalism is, and that was a very important lesson for me. The thing to try to change is the laws, not to improve people, because they already know. But just to give them the freedom to practice their own profession and to regulate themselves through their own professional ideology and ethics, that's what you need to do.

I'm really proud of American freedom of expression, and I came to appreciate that. The First Amendment, and I came to appreciate that increasingly, just what an incredible gift this is. Well, it's actually not a gift; it's our right. In fact, that's something that I would frequently ... I still ... I do a lot of lecturing now for the State Department. I've recently been in Malaysia, and they just had a bloodless revolution and a change of government, and one of the things I've just said over and over and over is, "Press freedom is not a gift from the government. It's a right of the people." And that that's such different way of thinking about things. I mean, in the United States, we're not grateful to our government for having given us the First Amendment. This is our constitutional right. And so, things like that; just basic American values that when you're in a place that doesn't have those basic rights, those basic value ... They may have the value, but they don't have the right, that that made me very proud of what we have.

I have an apartment in Jakarta and I go every summer, and I had a second Fulbright in 2005 to 2006. Indonesia after the transition to democracy. I mean, it's not perfect. They've still got problems but they have a media system that's the envy of Southeast Asia. They have a great press law. They have a press council where journalists themselves regulate their own profession, that it's outside the law. It's not legally binding, but they actually decide, "No, that story was unethical and you need to apologize or give the right to reply." So yeah, I think I'm optimistic in that way. 

But I also think I'm optimistic ... And this is something I also I think learned in Indonesia from a good friend of mine who then became the editor of Tempo after Goenawan stepped down, and that was that all of us ... Well, actually, Goenawan, something famous he'd said was, "There are no heroes. There are only heroic acts." And I believe that's true, and I think all of us are capable of being better than we really are. Maybe we haven't done much to distinguish ourselves, but we have to hope that when the time comes and there's a really important choice to make, we make the right choice.

And I guess I'm always optimistic that people who maybe haven't done anything so great yet actually will, and I view my ... I'm thinking more in the realm of the press, but I view my job as really being a cheerleader for good journalism and also for the fact that we need to step up, and we need to stand for what's right, publicly. So, I'm always optimistic.

Frequently, I would say to myself, when I'd be in a really odd situation, I would say, "Now, what would Princess Diana do when faced with this?" Because often, it was just nutty, the things that would happen. Certainly every time I would be on a motorcycle I would think, "I wish my friends and family could see this." That still happens, but I think it's funny, the, "What would Princess Diana do?" In a way, I realized we can try to be better people than we actually are. Everyone would always assume that I was this paragon of brilliance and grace and beauty. And you know, which is ridiculous. Here, no one treats me like that. But I would really try to be this person that they thought I was, and that was an important lesson, I think.

Chris: 22.33 is produced by The Collaboratory, an initiative within the U.S. State Department's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, better known as ECA. My name's Christopher Wurst. I'm the director of The Collaboratory. 

22.33 is named for Title 22, Chapter 33 of the U.S. Code, the statute that created ECA, and our stories come from participants of the U.S. government-funded international exchange programs.

This week, Janet Steele talked about her experiences as a Fulbrighter in Indonesia. 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 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. That's eca.state.gov/2233.

Special thanks this week to Janet for sharing her passion about Indonesian journalism and freedom of speech. I did the interview and edited this segment. Featured music was "Bhudda" by Duke Ellington and his bamous band; "Swapping Tubes", "Chromium Blush", and "Skyway" by Blue Dot Sessions; and "The Song is Ended, But the Melody Lingers On" by Ruby Braff and His Men. Music at the top of each episode is "Sebastian" by How The Night Came and end credit music is "Two Pianos by Tagirljus". 

Until next time.


Season 01, Episode 31 - View From the Treetops with Kevin McLean

LISTEN HERE - Episode 31


Looking up from the foot of a rainforest is overwhelming.  Imagine what the world looks like from way up there.  Our storyteller today doesn’t have to.  He spends his time in the rainforest canopy, researching and communing with creatures whose entire lives are spent without touching the ground. Kevin traveled to Ecuador & Malaysia as part of the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship; for more information visit: https://openexplorer.nationalgeographic.com/fulbrightfellowship. Accompanying photo courtesy of Drew Fulton.


Chris: You live in the trees at the top of the rainforest canopy. Life is different there, untouched by humans and unbothered by what's happening on the ground. The view is, of course, spectacular, but the perspective is even more profound.

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

Kevin: I got up into a tree and looked behind me, and there was a saki monkey looking at me. Saki monkeys are these weird things where their body is actually pretty small, but they have this huge, really fluffy fur. It looks like a little old lady wearing a giant fur coat, or something like that.

It's like that feeling that something's looking at you, and then you turn around and see this creepy looking monkey just staring at you.

Chris: This week, slingshotting your way up a tree, monkeys, wasps, snakes, and other delights, and not really draining the swamp. Join us on a journey from Minnesota and California to Ecuador and Malaysia to study life from the highest tree limbs. 

It's 22.33.

Intro Clip 1: (Music) We report what happens in the United States, warts and all.
Intro Clip 2: (Music) These exchanges shaped who I am.
Intro Clip 3: (Music) 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 they ...
Intro Clip 4: (Music)

Kevin: My name is Kevin McLean. I am originally from Minnesota, but I live in California. I was a Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellow from 2016 to 2017, and I spent my year split between Malaysia and Ecuador.

I'm a wildlife biologist, and I study animals that live in the canopy of the rainforest. I was really interested in finding places that had a lot of biodiversity and a lot of animals that live up in the canopy, but maybe places that hadn't really been studied as much.

I picked out in Malaysia, Malaysian Borneo, and then the Amazonian region of Ecuador because they're two places that both of them are considered some of the most biodiverse places on the planet. They have a lot of different animals that live up in the trees.

On the one hand, I sort of knew what to expect in terms of the research, but I had never worked in those forests. In Malaysia, it was really amazing when I got there because just the way that those forests look are so much different than a lot of other parts of the tropics. They have a lower canopy that's really connected.

There's a lots of squirrels and stuff and monkeys and everything that climb on these branches that are all connected to each other. But then there's these huge trees that stick up above all of those other ones. They're the tallest tropical trees in the world. I was really interested in climbing those giant trees, which is what I ended up doing.

In order to get up into the trees, I use a slingshot that shoots a little weight bag attached to a string. I have to get that weight bag over a big branch, a branch that's big enough to hold me, and then I can use that string to pull my rope over, and then I tie my rope to another tree back on the ground, and I can climb up the other end of that rope.

I'm okay with a slingshot. Pretty good, I would say, but it's a long process sometimes. There's not a lot of room for error in terms of getting to the right branch.

It is a lot of work to get up there. It's sort of a pain to get everything into the tree, including yourself. But then you get up to the top and there's sort of this breath. You're like, "Oh, this is really cool. This is why I'm doing all of this."

But you always have to be very wary because things can go wrong no matter how many climbs you've done and everything like that.

There are definitely times when it feels like the entire forest is sort of working against you in different ways. I had one day in Ecuador. I spent probably, I don't know, three or four hours trying to get a line into one tree, and never ended up getting it. And so, I went on to the next one, shot the line in really quickly, pulled my rope over.

When you start climbing up, you do what's called a bounce test where you and often another person will grab the rope, and you pull on it as hard as possible so that you can see if that branch is going to hold. So we did that, and then I started climbing up. I got 10 feet up the rope, maybe, and I heard a crack, and then all of a sudden I was only, like, two feet off the ground.

What ended up happening is that my rope was leaning against another branch that broke, and then it started to fall and got caught on another branch above me. It ended up being this probably 200 pound limb that could have fallen right on top of me.

I switched the angle of my rope and ended up climbing up the other side. And then I was just about to start setting up my camera. I rested my hand against the trunk of the tree right on top of a wasp nest.

It was like out of a cartoon where this jet of wasps starts streaming out from under my hand, basically. They're all over my face, all over my ears. I'm wearing a helmet, so they're buzzing inside of the helmet, too. I just had to close my eyes and come down the rope. My first climbing instructor made us do everything with our eyes closed all the time, and all of a sudden it made more sense why he made us do that.

It was kind of every negative emotion you can have all in the span of a few hours. I came out of the tree, and I just sobbed on the trail. I couldn't handle everything that had happened. Ignacia, the student who I was working with, was like, "I don't know what to do with you right now."

It is physically a different view of a forest to be up in the trees like that. It's not lost on me that very few people will actually have that perspective. Part of what I was really interested in doing is sharing that to some extent, either through my writing, through photography, through just talking about that process, but I also, like, brought a bunch of people up in the trees with me.

I had two complete sets of climbing gear, so over the course of the five or six months I was in Ecuador, I brought probably 40 or 45 people climbing with me, students and other researchers, some of the staff from the research station. One of the cooks really wanted to go climbing with me.

Being able to sort of give someone else that experience and show them this world that I spend so much time thinking about is really special. And then also finding ways to share that with people that I'm just never going to get a chance to bring up into the trees with me.

One of the trees I climbed several different times in Ecuador, I went up there and there was a group of capuchin monkeys, which are ... They're not huge. They're like the size of a cat or so. They were in a tree nearby but pretty far in terms of, like, they couldn't get to me.

They were behind all of these leaves, and then they would pop their faces out. They do these sort of threats where they kind of show their teeth and do these little threat displays. So every so often, these little monkeys would pop out, and bare their teeth at me, and then hide back in the trees. And then they'd pop out again from another spot and threaten me and stuff.

People often ask me about whether I'm seeing snakes in the trees and everything. I never actually have because, partly ... I mean, it's not that they don't live up there. But I think it takes me so long to get up there, and I'm bouncing on branches. They've got a lot of lead time to go somewhere else.

The only time I have actually seen a snake in the tree was in Panama years ago. I got up into the top of a tree, and a snake was in the tree I was in, and then it jumped. It jumped into a lower tree nearby. Which I think, one, it's crazy to see a snake jump 40 feet or whatever, but also it didn't want to be there while I was there. I don't see snakes very frequently, but they're definitely out there.

The first place we went, the first station I went to in Malaysia, I was on a bus, and so all of my stuff was underneath. When we were taking the bus down to the forest, durian was in season, which is a very smelly fruit that's quite famously banned in hotels and airports and stuff like that. But it's a very unique taste and texture, and I actually really enjoy it.

But there was a stand on the side of the road that was selling durian. And so, they stopped the bus, and all of these people got off and bought all the durian they could. They weren't allowed to bring it onto the buses where the seats are, so they put it all underneath. By the time we got to the research station, all of my stuff just smelled like durian. It stayed that way for, like, a month.

I arrived in Malaysia in September of 2016. I was abroad during the election. All of us had gone through the process of figuring out how to vote from abroad, and that is its own adventure in itself. And then, I was on my way to the research station when the election was actually happening.

It was huge global news. I think every election, I'm always shocked at how much the rest of the world is really paying attention because it feels so self-centered to imagine that the rest of the world is watching our election. But everywhere I went, people were ... They would hear my accent, and then they would ask me about the election.

I was at the station. It's this research station in the middle of the forest called Danum Valley. I didn't have a lot of contact with what was going on with friends or family or news or anything, so I really relied on tourists that would come into the station and sort of fill me in on what was going on back in the States, like other parts of the world and stuff.

There was this Swedish couple that came maybe a week or so after the election. I just asked them what was going on, what they had heard, and they told me that they were planning to shut down Everglades National Park. I was like, "That is an oddly specific thing to be in the news, right?"

And especially at this day. I didn't really quite understand, but then they were talking about it. "Yeah. Yeah, they're going to shut down Everglades. It's all over the news. It's all anyone's talking about."

And I was like, "That is so weird."

And then, once the internet came back, I found out that it was actually a misunderstanding of the phrase "drain the swamp." I mean, it's a very famous swamp, right?

I sort of got where they are coming from, but I was so confused for a week because I had no access to any other information. I really relied on all these people. Occasionally, an American would come through, but it was mostly Europeans or people from other Asian countries and stuff that I had to rely on for all of my news about the States.

A couple months before I left for Malaysia, I had gotten married. My husband was in school at the time, so he wasn't able to come with me. A few weeks after getting married, he went off to Alaska for a clinical rotation, then I left for Malaysia. Opposite ends of the world, for sure.

He was able to come and visit me over the holidays, over Christmas and New Year's and stuff. He came with me out into the field. I sort of brought him out there under the false impression that I just wanted him to see where I had been working, which is true. You spend so much of your life in these places, and you want the people that are close to you to see them.

I did want him to see the station, but I also had a lot of work that had to get done. I had all these cameras that had to get collected. I had to set up a whole bunch of other ones. I knew I had at least one really, really rough day in the field, and then a bunch of other ones following.

I brought him out there, and he was really excited just to see the station and the forest and stuff. We started the day really early and went out to the farthest camera. When we got out there, we saw ... There was an orangutan, a mother with her infant on her belly. There's not many places in the world that you can see orangutans at all. And then, even at the station, it's pretty rare to see them out there.

To just see an animal like that, such an iconic representation of these kinds of forests and stuff, and to have somebody that's important with me for that was really great. That's something that I know both of us will always remember.

But I also know he is going to remember the rest of the day even more because we were hiking through the forest for, I think, nine hours that day. It was hot. It's muggy in Southeast Asia. They have leeches. They're land leeches that crawl up your boots and then they bite you through your clothes and all that sort of stuff.

He was battling the heat and the leeches and the humidity. It's hard terrain to walk on. He didn't quite have the right shoes, which is sort of my fault, too. Over the course of the day, he was just exhausted. I looked at him, and I was like, "That is not a color I've ever seen a human face."

He ended up losing both of the toenails on his big toes because they had been pounding into rock so much.

But we have this great photo at the end of the day, after his sort of deathly coloring went away, where we ... At the end of the day, you have to cross a river to get back to the station. It's so hot, and even though you're carrying a lot of very heavy and expensive equipment, it's like the most refreshing thing in the world to cross that river.

We have this great picture of us at the end of this really long day crossing the river and everything. He's all smiles at that point, but it was a really, really rough day. He ended up staying at the station for the rest of the days we were there.

So, again, at the end of the day coming back to the research station in Danum Valley in Malaysia, you had to cross this river to get back. It's like a shortcut. You could potentially go on land, but it is way shorter and really, really nice and refreshing to just cross the river.

There were two research assistants that were with me who had been helping me out all day. They were on the shorter end of the spectrum. We were crossing the river, and we were carrying our bags above our heads. You sort of balance it on your head, or at some points you have to hold it straight above you.

I'm sort of bopping along, just kind of tip-toeing on the river, on the bottom of the river, and I'm holding my bag up above me. And then I see one guy's in, and he came by. He's a little bit shorter than I am. The water was at his nose, and he was just sort of holding his bag up above. And then the second guy, Bob, came by, and he's even shorter. It was just two little hands holding a backpack sticking up above the water.

Every time you go to a new research site, you really have to get to know it better, and just sort of on a base level of the kind of work that I do. I am studying an area of the forest that we don't really know a lot about because it's really inconvenient to do work up in the canopy.

There you are, in a way, also feeling like a foreigner because you get up there, and all of a sudden you see the forest from a completely different perspective. You suddenly see birds flying below you, and you look across to another tree, and there's monkeys staring at you, not knowing what to do with you.

Yeah. I mean, there's a lot of feeling out of place, especially at the beginning. And then over the course of two, three, four months of going back to these same places, climbing into the same trees, going to the same research stations, yeah, you get to know people. You get to know the place. You get to know the forest a lot better. So that by the end of it, I realized how much I had actually gotten accustomed to it and really gotten to know these places. When I think about Malaysia, I definitely think about Danum Valley and the Danum Valley Field Centre. It is just in this beautiful, sort of pristine forest. In some ways, it was a place that I was the most isolated because I didn't have a lot of contact in terms of internet or anything like that. I didn't know as many people there, and there were just fewer researchers there at the time. I was there on my own quite a bit. But it is just this sort of iconic place. When I think of the forest in Borneo, that's what I think about.

It's one of the few places where you can see orangutans just wandering through the forest, in their natural environment. There were elephants that came through every so often, which causes some problems with people's research equipment and stuff. But it just feels like this very wild remote place.

Similarly, in Ecuador, almost all of my time was spent at these two research stations that were around Yasuni National Park. Yeah. I had to go back and forth between those stations a number of times to set up cameras and collect them and everything. It's a two hour boat ride from one station to the next.

On that boat ride, we saw giant river otters and freshwater dolphins. It's just sort of another reminder that there are really wild places left out in the world. That's part of why we do this kind of research is to make sure that we understand those places, and we can preserve those places.

When I think about my best experiences or favorite places, those are the ones that come to mind, but they're also where I got attacked by wasps and leeches and all these other things, so it's a lot of mixed emotions.

Chris: 22.33 is produced by the Collaboratory, an initiative within the U.S. State Department's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, better known as ECA.

My name's Christopher Wurst. I'm the director of the Collaboratory. 22.33 is named for Title 22, Chapter 33 of the U.S. Code, the statute that created ECA. Our stories come from participants of U.S. Government funded international exchange programs.

This week, Kevin McLean reminisced about his time as a Fulbright-National Geographic Fellow. 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. 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 this week to Kevin for sharing his passion about nature's untouched places. Ana-Maria Sinitean did the interview, and I edited this segment.

Featured music was "Brass Buttons" and "Curio" by Blue Dot Sessions, "Battle (Normal)" by BoxCat Games, "Pretty and Cruddy Beat" and "Proliferate" by Podington Bear, and "Caravan" by Ralph Marterie 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 30 - [Bonus] Bring Your Own Guinea Pig

LISTEN HERE - Episode 30


The relationships created—and the ethical issues that arise—during an excavation at an ancient historical site in Peru.


Chris: You're an expert in your field. All your training is pointing you to the research in a foreign land far from home. Once there, you get right to work. And, everything is going as planned until, sudden, it's not. And, the ancient past and present collide hard. What do you do? Hundreds of American researchers participate in exchange programs around the world every year, changing their lives, and the way that we see the world.

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

Allison: When I started going to Peruvian Gyms, I was a little nervous. I thought it might be a lot of men lifting weights. Or, I didn't really know what it would be like. And then, when I started going in, I realized it was a gym scene that you might otherwise expect a lot of middle-aged ladies, trying not to let their figures go entirely. And, one of the things that I grew to really enjoy doing at the gym near my house was, step aerobics, which sounds familiar. It was basically familiar, but there are few differences.

So, in the United States, you have a step that's made out of rubber. It's not supposed to be slippery, and it's supposed to be safe. And then, this class, we had homemade wooden steps that were super slippery, and would slide out from under people all of the time. People were always falling down. It was just part of the fun. A lot of women would wear these sweatsuits that seem to be made out of marathon blankets, those things that are supposed to keep people warm, but they said that it's helping them sweat, helping them lose weight.

And then, one of the problems that I always had is, I would go into the class, I'd put my stuff down. And then, the other women would put their stuff down very close to me. What was happening is that, even though I'm only 5'4, I'm at least six inches taller than most of the other women who were taking that class. And, they would underestimate how far I was going to kick. And so, I'd start the class and say; Hey, can you scoot your stuff over a little.

And, they would say; No. There's plenty of room. And then, we'd start the class. And, inevitably, I would be almost kicking them, our steps would be sliding down. Someone's in this metallic gym suit, and I heard it was just a lot of fun, and a great way to spend a little time. I would always recommend going to foreign gyms.

Chris: This week, Peruvian Step Aerobics, excavating in an ancient village. And, BYOGP, which of course means, Bring Your Own Guinea Pig to the party. On this episode, a journey from Missouri to Peru, to discover that human relationships transcend everything else.

It's 22.33.

Intro Clip 1: (Music) We operate under a presidential mandate, which says that we report what happens in the United States, warts and all. These exchanges shaped to who I am. That's what we call cultural exchange.
Intro Clip 2: (Music) 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, they are responsible to creating ... Oh, that's what we call cultural exchange. Oh, yes.

Allison: My name is Allison Davis. I am from Sullivan, Missouri. I did a Fulbright exchange to Peru in Cusco, in the years 2006 and 2007. When I was planning to go to Peru and thinking about where I was going to live, it seemed natural for me to ask my good friend if I could rent an apartment that she was planning to build in her house. We talked a lot. She promised that it was done. But, when I arrived to Cusco, and I went to her house, I saw that, yes, there were walls. Yes, there were windows.

But, when I went into the apartment, there were no floors. There was no plumbing. There were no appliances. There were no interior doors. In other words, the apartment itself was just a shell. And so, I ended up, for the first couple of weeks of my Fulbright, sleeping on her couch in the three bedroom apartment that her four-member family was also living in. And, one of the things I really remember is that, they didn't use a shower. Instead, they had a bathroom.

It had running water. There was a sink. There was a toilet. But, you would just boil a little water on Sunday, and that's the day you would bathe out of a bucket. And then, you would go on with the week. At first, that was hard. But, I ended up getting used to it as I stayed there for about the first month of my Fulbright. Then, when I finally moved into the apartment, of course, we didn't always have running water.

And, at that point, I didn't really care if I was showering or not. It didn't make that much of a difference. I had learned to bathe over the course of the week in the sink. And, that was my first taste of this realization of how many things that I had in my daily life, I really didn't need. I never really had consistent running water. I realized I really didn't need that. And, that experience has really affected my life since then, because I still don't really care if I have running water.

I still don't really buy disposable things like plastic bags and paper towels. I just don't need them. And so, I think that's an experience that's changed the way that I live my life. My project as a Fulbrighter was to do the archeological excavations, the field work that I needed to do in order to write my dissertation when I got back to the United States. I went to a rural community where I had identified there was a 2000 year old village that I wanted to dig up to answer my research questions.

And, I went into the community, and recruited laborers. My first season, I had those field workers. I was also working with college educated archeologists who lived in the city of Cusco, and had gone to the university there. And, we all went out and started digging. My plan was to dig up a village to see what people's houses were like. To see what their trash was like. To try to imagine what daily life was like in this place 2000 years ago.

But, immediately, when we started digging, we began to find human burials. It was never my plan to excavate human burials. So, this was concerning to me. I had personal, ethical challenges with it. One of the concerns that I had was that, the workers who lived in this community, these people whose graves were going to be excavating, are in some sense their ancestors. I was concerned that they wouldn't want to do that excavation, that they would have a problem, an ethical problem, a moral problem with it.

I asked my archeologist friends, who are city people, educating the city. And, they would say; Oh, Peru is different. No one minds if you dig up human burials. We do it all the time. Human bodies circulate. It's fine. It's no big deal. We just consider it archeological material like anything else. And so, with that in mind, I asked my field workers; Is this going to bother you to dig up human burials? And, they all said; No, no, no, no. We're not old-fashioned. We're not superstitious. We're modern people. We don't have any problem with any of this.

And so, over the course of that first excavation season, I think we'd done the burials of about 16 individuals. And, I learned a lot of really interesting things. I learned that there was a practice of mummification 2000 years before the Inca, and the Inca are really famous for using mummies as a way to let someone's children inherit their land after they pass on. As long as they're still around as a mummy, they keep their land.

And so, that was really interesting for me intellectually. And so, I finished that season feeling pretty good. I had learned a lot from digging the human burials. No one seemed to mind that we were doing it. And then, I returned the next year to do a second excavation season in a slightly different part of the site. I had some field workers return from the first time. I had some new field workers. And, as we started digging, we began to find human burials again.

And, I didn't even ask this time; Does it bother anyone? Anything like that. But, as time went on, some workers that I had known for longer said; You know Allison, I don't wanna keep digging these burials. Can you let me dig in a different part of a site? And, I said; Oh! Why? And, it turns out that, the conversations that the workers had been having amongst themselves about what the affect was of digging those burials, I had no idea, because we didn't know each other. There wasn't a lot of trust.

And so, he started to tell me; Well, when you dig burials, it's likely to give you arthritis. When you dig burials, a person can get very bad nightmares. When you dig burials, maybe the best one is, you can grow a sixth finger. So, all these dramatic things that could happen to you. Or, people say that; We're digging these burials, and it's causing trouble in the community. And, on and on. There are a lot of different examples.

You know, people who I didn't know, who I was going to pay, were willing to tell me what they thought I wanted to hear. And so, I think one of the lessons for archeologists is that, you need to make sure that you're listening. You need to make sure you have good enough personal relationships with people that they'll be honest with you. But, the only way to have those relationships is to do this longer term research. To know people for longer. To build just the normal human relationships that people have.

And, I think that's a lesson that I've taken into my normal life. You ask a stranger a question. They might not tell you the truth. If you ask them a year later when they're your friend, you're probably going to find out what they've been thinking all along. One of the advantages to doing archeology in the context of a Fulbright exchange is that, you're there for the long haul. In science, unfortunately, the long haul is frequently up to a year.

When you have really lived and worked in a place for a year or longer, you recognize that, there's that conversation at home, the science conversation. And then, there's the community that you're in, and the conversation that's there, and the concerns that they have. And, I think, doing a longer exchange, helps balance how you weigh those two concerns.

One of the best things about doing archeology, generally, but, I think, especially, about doing it in the Highlands of Peru and in the context of the small village is that, when you're finally at the end of the excavation season, you've reached bedrock and every pit that you've dug, there's no more cultural stuff to find, you're ready to fill it all back in with dirt, you finally get a chance for everyone to just get together and have an end of season party.

I was a foreigner. I lived in the city. I could go to the grocery store. They were mostly subsistence farmers. They had mostly things that they grew themselves, and then, some limited things that they could get through exchange, or going to the market every once in a while. So, I was definitely going to be the one that brought the beer. I was definitely going to be the one who brought the cheese. I was bringing those kinds of things that had to come from the store.

But, the women, especially who were excavating with me said; We'll do the cooking. Don't worry. You all just have to bring certain foods. So, the people who growing potatoes, which was most people; We'll bring potatoes. And then, someone else was gonna bring the corn. And, on and on. Then, we got to the end of the discussion, and they said; And, everyone will just bring their own guinea pig. And, everyone sort of agreed and started nodding.

And, I was sitting there. I was like; I don't have my own guinea pig. And, people just looked at me like they were shocked that I didn't have a guinea pig. And of course, they wanted the guinea pigs, because we were going to eat them. Guinea pig is just a really popular party food around Cusco. When you're really gonna celebrate, do it up big. It's time to cook guinea pigs.

And, the plan that the women has was that everyone would bring their own guinea pig. They would start out in the morning, early. They would singe off the hair. They would cut them, get them ready. Lay them in the sun so they could dry out a little bit before they roast it. And then, they were gonna take the intestines and make these little tiny sausages filled with potatoes, which are actually really delicious. And, on and on and on. But, that just depended on everyone bringing their own guinea pig.

I was sort of shocked, because, I was the only foreigner there. They seemed to have recognized that in a lot of ways. They'd make jokes about what languages we were talking, and what it was like where I live. But, it didn't seem to occur to them that I was the only one who wasn't keeping a guinea pig in my kitchen, ready to be eaten at any time. So, people were very worried. Well, I don't have an extra. I can't give you an extra. No one had an extra guinea pig for me.

Eventually, one of the workers did volunteer the guinea pig. But, it was just one of these interesting moments where you look at each other, and they know you're different. It's surprising what people assume is universal, until it's revealed in that kind of moment when everyone's pitching in the same thing, and trying to divide tasks. A lot of Americans who travel to Peru, they wanna try guinea pig, because it just seems so strange or exciting that it's something that you eat.

And, when you order it in a restaurant, you get just this guinea pig, either on a tiny little spit like a pig, and it's been twirled around and roasted. Or, you get it cut open and flattened like a bare-skin rug, and then breaded and fried. And, they just put it on a plate with a potato, and that's it. The experience of eating it in that context, people would say; Oh my gosh! It has so many bones. It's so greasy. The taste is so strong. And, they walk away thinking that was not a delicious food, that it's not a food that I need to have any other time.

But, if you're eating guinea pig in the context of a party in a small town, what you're really doing is eating a lot of potatoes, like, dozens of potatoes per person. And, potatoes are really dry. And so, when you eat five really dry potatoes, and then, you take a bite of really greasy guinea pig, it's a relief, but, it's just delicious. It makes the potatoes go down better. It makes everything taste better.

And, it's really important to have, because in my experience, when I would eat with Peruvians in these small towns, people would not drink while they were eating. And, that's really hard for Americans, not to drink any liquids while they were eating. People would only drink if someone said; Salud. Or; Cheers. And then, everyone drank at the same time. So, if you're a foreigner, and you're thirsty, and you raise your glass to drink while everyone's talking, it's really disruptive. And, everyone will stop talking and sort of panic, and look around for their drink, and then grab it and drink it. It disturbs the whole meal.

And so, you learn over time to try to quit drinking. But, it's so hard, that, that guinea pig really provides this lubricant to get all the potatoes down. Even the sausages are intestines just stuffed with potato. So, it's just like a lot of dry food, and the guinea pig fat is delicious in that context.

Chris: 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 takes its name from 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, Allison Davis shared her experience as an archeologist on an ECA Fulbright Research Scholarship in Cusco, Peru, where she led the excavation of a 2000 year old village. Fulbright scholars