Brooke Goes Global: My experience as an Asian Woman Abroad

November 4, 2018

“I pick you” shouts a tattered, stranger man from across the street.  I look up to see his scraggly finger pointing in my direction.  He stepped off the opposite curb and began moving towards me.  “But I don’t pick you,” I shouted back.  My friend grabbed my arm and pulled me closer to her.  She said jokingly “sorry, but she’s mine.”  In my blue dress, I continued to walk down the sidewalk with five other girls by my side.  To him, I was nothing more than a body.  The body of a woman he felt justified to sexualize and objectify.

I arrived back to our hostel.  I looked in the mirror and saw my exposed arms and legs in my short, blue dress.  I changed quickly into joggers and a long sleeve tee, an outfit that covered my skin and my feminine curves.  Now, looking back, I hate that I did that.  I hate that I let the sleazy man affect my mind and my behaviors.  Because in that moment, I saw only what he saw — the body of a woman.  Nothing more, nothing less.  

“So where are you from?” asked my tour guide.  “The United States,” I responded.  His face said it all.  My answer was not adequate.  Where was my light skin, my pointy nose, my wide eyes?  “No but where…”, before he could finish I cut in.  “I was adopted from China”.  This answer was satisfactory.  He only stopped when his ethnocentric ideals were proven.  I fit the stereotypical mold of an Asian.  I, however, did not fit the stereotypical mold of an American.  Despite me living in the United States and holding an American passport, he would not accept me as an American.  The tour guide proceeded to take out his phone and show me pictures of himself with Asians.  “This is my brother’s girlfriend from Taiwan.  Isn’t she pretty?”.  In my head, I was taking out my phone and showing him all my photos with white people.  But on the outside I humored the bigot’s microaggression and smiled like the passive woman of color I was expected to be.  Now, looking back, I hate that I didn’t speak up for myself, for Asians, for people of color.  I hate that I let the ignorant man affect my mind and my behaviors.  Because in that moment, I saw only what he saw — the body of an Asian.  Nothing more, nothing less.

In these instances, I felt like the only thing I had to offer the world was my body.  My body that just so happened to be female and Asian.  My mind was of no importance.  My personality was of little interest.  And my opinions, perspectives, and experiences — all irrelevant.  

It’s fascinating and heartbreaking to travel across countries all with the binding construct of a social hierarchy.  The amount of respect, dignity, and humanity you receive is based on your placement on this hierarchy.  You have no control.  You have no influence.  Society has the final judgement, labeling you as a superior, equal, or inferior.  Why is this the accepted norm?  Why is this okay to nations, communities, individuals?  I share my stories to demonstrate how rude acts of ignorance, even if small, perpetuate dehumanization.  

There’s growing popularity of the false notion that the way you dress can, will, and should affect the way you are treated.  As I walked down the streets of Cape Town, my blue dress caught a particular man’s eye.  My blue dress caused distraction and attraction.  My dress allowed him to label me as property.  Property that could be easily chosen and then discarded.  I should be obedient and honored that he would “pick” me.  My dress demoted my human status to object status.  If I hadn’t worn such a “revealing” outfit, I would have been treated as a proper woman.  I wouldn’t have been catcalled.  I wouldn’t have been objectified.  As the woman, I am the one to accept the blame.  It is my job to behave within the standards of appropriateness and sophistication.  This idea is ridiculous.  Clothing is not the perpetrator.  My actions, as a woman, should not be dictated by the limited self-control of a man.  Patriarchy and misogyny is excused while women are blamed — while I am blamed.

My program, thankfully, is not short on feminist women and their allies.  I have ample support from intelligent, creative, beautiful women with different perspectives across limitless topics.  Nonetheless, my support falls short in the area of race.  In a group of 25 students, over half of them are people of color.  Nonetheless, I am the only one who identifies as Asian.  I did not understand how much comfort and support my Asian friends provided until they were no longer there.  Within the group, I have sympathizers but no empathizers.  On days when the world seems to grab at my feet, pulling me backward, situations like these make me feel like a blank canvas, an empty body.  My self-confidence diminishes and my accomplishments are forgotten.  These seem to slip my mind but, thankfully, are fully appreciated and vocalized by my peers.  Those days do inevitably come but seem to be few and far in-between.

The past 12 weeks of my life have been hard, but they have also been so full of joy and growth.  I would not trade a single moment of my abroad experience.  It’s been a main contributor to the development of the individual I am today.  I am a woman.  I am Asian.  And I am proud to say that I am both.  However, I am also a daring adventurer who flew over the coast of South Africa, ziplined over waterfalls, and snorkeled with seals.  I am also a vulnerable and compassionate individual who studies with the hope of promoting and progressing health as a human right.  I am also a sarcastic ass who will not pass up an opportunity to make a joke.  These are all things my body cannot show alone.  These are all things society cannot come to understand when they limit me to a spot on a hierarchy.  But I have come to understand, societal constructs are not my loss — it’s theirs.  

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Despite the ocean temperature barely reaching 50 degrees, snorkeling with seals was a great experience!

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True friends cheer you on as you fly over waterfalls.

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We went dwelling in the Congo Caves that were formed millions of years ago from something as simple, yet as powerful as water.


Brooke Goes Global: South Africa’s Fight for Land

October 29, 2018

For the past few weeks, I have wandered between realms of ignorance and reality. My role as a tourist, as a student, and as a local, has immersed me into one sphere, then forcefully dragged me into another. Each sphere lives its own separate life, yet social and political consequences successfully transcend these borders. As a tourist, I have gasped and awed at the picturesque South Africa. The mountains have been climbed. The restaurants have been visited. The tickets for adventure have been paid for. As a tourist, I have the money and the time to experience the luxurious — and predominately white populated — areas of South Africa. Here, I live in a sphere of ignorance.

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The Victoria and Alfred Waterfront — a popular tourist destination.

As a student, I have been awestruck by the powerful history of this powerful country. I learned of the racism, the inequality, the systems of oppression of the past and the present. I listened to lectures on colonialism. I read journal articles on the nation’s economic inequality. “South Africa has one of the highest Gini Coefficients in the world,” they tell me. It enters one ear and goes out the other. Surface level knowledge and surface level comprehension of a life in South Africa. Here, I live in a sphere of awareness.

Living in a homestay, I have been pushed into the life of a local — to a life beyond beautiful pictures. I have lived with families who have very real struggles with gentrification, land rights, and economic opportunity. These struggles are no longer ignored. They are no longer just a written fact. These struggles are real and immediate. As a local, I see how the oppressed overcome hardships to find dignity and humanity. Here, I live in a sphere of reality.

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My homestay mom is on the left, Mama Thembsi, with one of her best friends, Elizabeth.

 

From 1948 to 1991, South African citizens lived under an oppressive Apartheid regime — apartheid literally meaning “apart.” In an attempt to make Cape Town an all-whites city, people were categorized according to their race. These classifications, including Indian/Asian, Colored, Black, or White, determined everything. If you were not white, you were forced to live in the outskirts of the city. If you were not white, your daily movement was restricted and monitored. If you were not white, manual labor jobs were your only economic opportunity. You did not vote. You did not own land. This was the law. And if you did not obey the law, you were subject to brutal whippings or execution. Children included. The oppressive and racist Apartheid government focused on protecting the population minority and repressing the majority.

The African National Congress (ANC), a protest grassroots organization, gained popularity in the latter part of the Apartheid government through promotion of its core principles. After people of color were stripped of their land and homes and herded into segregated areas outside the city, the right for land became a main pillar of their political platform. In 1991, the Apartheid government “peacefully” ceased power after years of protest from the ANC. I simplify this cession that includes stories of brave South Africans, powerful and peaceful protests, violence, and international relations. Instead, I wish to concentrate on a less popular topic — South Africa’s expectation of democracy versus its reality.

In 1994, the African National Congress came to power with something as simple yet as influential as the right to vote. Nelson Mandela, backed by the ANC, was elected President of the newly formed South African democracy. The ANC created a progressive and powerful constitution, granting its citizens the right to health, education, water, and housing. And land — its redistribution was mentioned in the constitution. Though to this day, land redistribution still has no explicit plans for change.

This brings me to where I am today, the rural community of Zweletemba. I went from center city Cape Town, known as the Europe of Africa, to a former blacks only township created during Apartheid. The 200,000 people population in Zweletemba are unique in their stories but not in their struggles.

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A main road in the neighborhood.

In the center of the neighborhood, most roads are paved and houses are constructed in neat, straight lines. Electricity poles stand erect at block corners. Hidden pipes bring water to homes. Children jump rope on the dusty roads. Dogs roam looking for attention. But as you move to the outskirts of the town, electricity poles become more and more rare, eventually going extinct. Public toilets become the street’s only source of sanitary plumbing. And houses take the form of four walls constructed of sheet metal.

Zweletemba is a neighborhood of subsidized housing. People, families move in because they can’t afford housing anywhere else. They construct a house out of the supplies they have, apply for government housing, and wait. After many years and much citizen advocacy, the government finally constructs the housing it so plainly labels as a human right in the nation’s constitution.

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An informal settlement in the outskirts of Zweletemba.

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Zweletemba is in the district of Worcester. Three families own over 70% of the land in Worcester. This land was attained during Apartheid when it was stolen from people of color and distributed to whites for farming. Most of this private property today is unused and vacant. Much of this land surrounds Zweletemba. Families are desperate for land and desperate for houses, so they build informal settlements on this vacant, privately owned land. The desperation of poverty is forgotten by the rich, white land owners. In an attempt to remove families from their unused land, they call the police to enforce eviction. Barbed wire barricades are put up so the land cannot be further infiltrated. And lawsuits are filed against the families.  And so goes another fight for the land, as there are merciless efforts by the rich to push impoverished families out of their homes.  Yet the actions of these families are hardly affecting the everyday lives of the rich.

Currently, the government is trying to buy this privately owned land for its people. The land, after purchase, would be public land. Houses would be built on the government owned land and given to families in need — this of course is an extremely simplified version of the process. One of the main bureaucratic dilemmas is the task of negotiations. The government has very little leverage power. They, the government and the people, are desperate for the land while the rich land owners are not desperate for the sale. The last sale of land, bought for the townspeople of Zweletemba, was valued at 6 million Rand. The government purchased it for 17 times its worth at 102 million Rand. The wealth gap keeps growing. And the profit of stolen land seems to be contributing to this exponentially growing gap.

In 1991, whites were greatly advantaged politically, economically, and socially. They had been given almost everything for over 40 years while the people of color had almost everything taken from them. In 1994, all races were granted political, economic, and social equality. Opportunity was now available to all. But, there is a tragic flaw in this logic. When someone starts a marathon 10 miles ahead of you, how are you expected to finish at the same time, let alone within the same hour? This illustrates the historic effects of inequality that still manifest today in South Africa. Linda Norling, a freelance journalist in Cape Town, writes “although political power has been in the hands of the black majority since the dawn of South African democracy 24 years years ago, economic power remains with white people: white households in 2015 earned 4.5 times as much as black households, and whites hold more than 60% of top management positions, despite accounting for only 10% of the working population. In universities, black people account for not quite 35% of academics, despite making up about 80% of the population.” This is the reality for many. As a tourist, student, and local, I have the privilege to move out of this sphere of reality. With this privilege, it is my responsibility to speak up and make a change.

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Here to make a change for this adorable generation of South African citizens.


Bryan in Taipei: Monkeys and Mazu

October 22, 2018

The title of this post should actually be ‘Bryan in Tainan’ since that’s the trip that inspired me to write this. Tainan is a city in southern Taiwan (the “南” (nán) in its Chinese name, “台南” (táinán), means south) known for its history and culture from the Qing Dynasty. I also visited its southern neighbor, Kaosiung (高雄), on the recommendation of a mountain there with scores of wild monkeys. Needless to say, I wasn’t disappointed.

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About a dozen monkeys along the road up the mountain in Kaohsiung

When I arrived at the hostel, the owner couldn’t understand why so many foreigners were obsessed with seeing monkeys. Whereas she saw them as annoying and bothersome animals, most of the tourists who visited this mountain from other countries were incredibly excited to see monkeys in the wild for the first time. Signs were up all over the hiking trails warning hikers not to provoke the monkeys or eat in front of them. Apparently these monkeys have grown accustomed to the presence of people walking by and to an extent feeding them as well, so they were much less apprehensive than I would have expected. I even saw a few walk straight in front of hikers and hang out beside two elderly people drinking tea.

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Hand-puppet street performance by local students in front of the templeEnter a caption

In Tainan, I also saw someone dressed in a monkey costume in front of a temple doing some sort of performance. If I had to guess, this would have been inspired by the Monkey King from the famous classical Chinese novel, Journey to the West. It was just one of many of the street performances I saw – all accompanied by food stands, of course. I even ran into a hand puppet performance in front of a tiny temple in a not very busy side street. Although it was difficult to follow, I ended up watching almost the whole performance with only one other person in the crowd who likely worked at the temple. She was happy to see me interested and to explain the basic/dumbed-down version of the plot to me in Chinese as well.

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The Dutch Fort Zeelandia in Tainan

Nearby, I also ran into a fortress built by the Dutch in the early 17th century called Fort Zeelandia (or 安平古堡 in Chinese, meaning Anping District Ancient Fort). This was another vestige of foreign influence/colonialism in Taiwan that now still stands as remembrance. Taiwan and its relatively young few hundred years of history have seen a striking number of foreign countries or empires’ presence and influence, which is interesting to see throughout the island. Tainan is the historic capital city under the Qing Dynasty, so these roots stretch even farther back than Taipei, which was more bolstered and developed under the Japanese colonial period than the Qing Dynasty.

Statue of Mazu

Mazu (sometimes spelled Matzu) is the Chinese goddess of nautical navigation pictured in the statue above. You’ll find statues and shrines to her throughout port cities throughout this region and Southern China. There are lots of legends about her and how she became elevated to the status of goddess, but the basic idea is that she helps guide sailors back home safely. In an area prone to typhoons, this was important before modern sailing technology. I’m not certain why there were so many children playing and blowing bubbles that night I visited, but with the sunset it was an incredible sight altogether. I was taken aback visiting the south by how friendly and laid back people there were. I had a problem returning the city bike to the station and asked someone also renting a bike if they could help, and they proceeded to spend upwards of twenty minutes of their time helping me. Another person I met at a food stand was surprised I could read some of the Chinese characters (traditional here is much harder) and told me that if I could read the street signs I ought to go to this restaurant that the locals love instead of the touristy place I was headed towards. It was fascinating how different it felt being in a place only two hours away from Taipei by high speed rail and I am tempted to go back before I leave.

Bryan


Bryan in Taipei: 7/11 and an Unexpected Culture Shock

October 18, 2018

 

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A really crowded 7-Eleven store during a music festival in Taipei last week

Though it might seem unorthodox, I wanted to dedicate this entire post to 7-Eleven because of how iconic and different it is in Taiwan compared with the chains in the United States. Because of localization, it actually makes for a pretty decent case study into the habits, tastes, and needs of Taiwanese consumers versus American ones. For starters, 7-Elevens are simply everywhere in Taipei and are seldom if ever attached to gas stations. In many areas, you can look down one major street and see multiple of this chain, then turn down another street and see even more. Its major competitor here is FamilyMart, with some Hi-Life stores sprinkled in as well.

Many Taiwanese describe the island as “方便” (convenient), and 7-Eleven certainly contributes to this sense of convenience. In 7-Elevens, you can: refill your bus/metro card, buy train tickets, print passport photos, microwave frozen or refrigerated food, send packages, and pay bills/tickets, just to name a few. Like much of Taiwan, the Japanese influence is evident, this time in the food: items like bento-boxes, instant noodles, and sushi rolls are widely available and quite popular with locals. It’s also worth mentioning that items like the Slurpee are not found here, which is surprising given their popularity in the US but unsurprising given how different the stores in Taiwan and the US are.

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7-Eleven X-Store in Taipei

One store I ran into here in Taipei (funnily enough, right next to another 7-Eleven) was a concept store called “7-Eleven X.” This futuristic store without cashiers had a larger availability of specialty items (e.g. a cold brew coffee machine and imported chocolate) that could all be purchased using a certain type of card. It was very cool to see how 7-Eleven is innovating here and using its established preeminence to try new ideas and see how they work on the local Taiwanese consumers. Other people seemed as excited and curious about the store as I did, and it was nice to get the opportunity to go inside and check it out. Overall, Taiwan’s 7-Elevens are more similar to and have more influence from those in Japan than those found throughout the US, which was something I wasn’t expecting to learn studying abroad here.


Brooke Goes Global: South Africa

October 18, 2018

The birds sang their morning song as I began to wake.  I blinked my eyes continuously and rubbed last night’s sleep from their lids.  I slipped on long pants, a cozy sweatshirt, and some warm socks.  I tiptoed out of the room and headed up the stairs.  I crossed the lawn to the metal staircase, twirling and winding up the side of the building.  Quickly, I ascended the stairs and struggled to catch my breath at the top.  The hostel roof, unmistakably, offers its best views before 6:30am.  I sat close to the edge so as to not miss a single wave produced by the vast blue ocean.  My cheeks burned as the salty ocean breeze brushed them red.  The morning mist dotted my hair in a layer of damp cold.  The weather invited families of clouds to scatter across the sky.  But the waking sun was not to be silenced.  Finding the only break in the clouds, the sun peaked its way into existence.  Sun beams slowly reached their arms out of the dark clouds and spread across the sea.  I smiled and turned my head to what I once ignored.  To my surprise, the green luscious mountain, standing close behind, applauded the performance.  I closed my eyes tightly to fathom this moment, this experience, this life.

Muizenberg, Cape Town sunrises became my first friend on the continent of Africa.  After the third day at the beautiful ocean town, I reluctantly waved goodbye to the hostel and said hello to a new homestay, in a new country, in a new continent.

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The morning’s view from our hostel in Muizenberg, Cape Town.

Here I am, in South Africa.

My homestay in Cape Town is in the historic neighborhood of Bo Kaap.  Houses stand side by side in organized, bright, colorful rows.  People are neighbors streets away.  Neighbors are friends and friends are family.  The Bo Kaap is the epitome of a community that cares for one another.

We had just arrived to the Bo Kaap, when we starting following the lead of my homestay mother, Omi Mia.  She led us through the streets, pointing out houses and pairing them with her many friends’ names.  All conversation in that moment was ignored as my brain concentrated on what the eyes were sensing — beautiful, bright rainbow houses.  All connected.  All so inviting and radiating.  My daydream was abruptly ended when Omi stopped us in front of a bright yellow home.  We emerged into a quaint and cozy living room filled with family photos and memorabilia.

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One of the beautiful streets of the Bo Kaap neighborhood. I live in the very last yellow colored house you can see in the photo.

Dinner after dinner, I excitedly sat at the table and listened as Omi shared her life story with us.  Omi is an intelligent, witty, and incredibly caring woman.  She is the oldest of four children.  At 72 years old, she is the hub of social gatherings among her family and friends.  On the night of our arrival, the table was set for seven.  She apologized for the small gathering that night, and I chuckled thinking back to normal family dinners with just my mom and me.

The Omi Mia household is one of 24 other households in the Bo Kaap housing IHP students.  The families hosting us students all know one another.  They adventure together.  They vacation together.  They eat together.  This is a community.  This is a neighborhood that cares for one another.

From 1948 to 1991, the Apartheid government attempted to make the city of Cape Town a whites only city.  This resulted in the Group Areas Act of 1950 forcing the segregation of different ethnic and racial groups.  Families were forced from their homes, told they only had minutes to put their belongings in a truck that would drive them to their new government issued house.  During this era of segregation, the Bo Kaap was, by law, deemed a Muslim only area.  The neighborhood’s history shapes its present.  Today, the Bo Kaap is a community of mostly Muslim families.

Unfortunately, gentrification and greedy politics are forcing families out of their Bo Kaap homes — homes that have been in their families for generations.  With the growing popularity of South African property, the Bo Kaap has become a hotspot for development.  It is in the central part of the city.  The waterfront harbor, museums, and countless amenities are all within a short distance’s walk.  As a result of this perfect storm, the demand for Bo Kaap property has exponentially grown.  This increase in property value causes taxes to soar.  New city regulations require monthly fees never charged to families before but are now deemed required and necessary.  Older generations pass and their children are unable to afford the adjusted finances of the now million dollar homes.  In turn, families who’ve grown up in the area are priced out of the Bo Kaap.

Gentrification is pushing history out of the neighborhood.  People move in for the convenient location while ignoring the community’s culture and individuality.  South Africa’s oldest mosque, over 200 years old, is located on the streets of Bo Kaap.  In practice with the Islam religion, the mosque plays a call to prayer at certain times of the day.  Within the past few years, an individual from Europe bought a house in the Bo Kaap.  Annoyed by the daily 5am wakeup from the call to prayer, he complained at a community meeting.  He demanded for the call to prayer to be stopped.  He believed as a foreigner, an outsider, and a non-Muslim that his needs should come before everyone else’s.  He willingly bought the house in the Bo Kaap.  He willingly moved in to this historically Muslim neighborhood.  But now, he is unwilling to accept the community he moved himself into.  Thankfully, his request was denied.  And at 5am, I happily lay in my bed listening to South Africa’s oldest mosque’s call to prayer.   

Another problem within the Bo Kaap is the consequences of tourism.  The Bo Kaap is deemed a must-see destination for South African vacations.  Tour buses park at the entrance of the neighborhood so their customers can get out and take photos.  Tourists ignore the privacy and property of the street’s natives and climb on their porches to snap the perfect photo.  Tour guides lead groups through the community’s sidewalks, spewing ignorant and downright wrong information about the neighborhood.  Omi has overheard tour guides tell groups the houses were painted different colors as a solution to them not being able to identify their own home when they come home drunk.  Yet, as a predominately Muslim neighborhood, most individuals do not drink in their town.  Tour guides still continue to share inaccurate and disrespectful rumors about real people, living in this very real place.  Tours of the Bo Kaap are advancing tourist companies, the city, and the outsiders.  Those living in the Bo Kaap are not reaping any benefits from tourism.  Instead their reputation is tarnished and their property is trespassed.

Nonetheless, I am thankful to say I am part of the SIT/IHP abroad program.  As a student of IHP, I am contributing to the preservation of the Bo Kaap and its stories.  Our homestays are compensated for housing students.  These working class families are paid generously by our program for kindly inviting strangers into their house.  Students learn from the families.  They learn the truth, the facts, the reality from citizens of the Bo Kaap.  But also we share our experiences, lives, and stories with the families too.  It is important to remember reciprocity when you’re abroad.  As much as we take from a foreign country as American students, it is just as important to leave a compassionate legacy behind.  I am honored to share the stories born and cultivated from Bo Kaap history.  I do not take this task lightly.  To have the opportunity to share someone else’s story, through my eyes, is truly a powerful adventure.  I am grateful to have this platform as an occasion to share the stories of these beautiful people in Bo Kaap, Cape Town.  

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The sea and the mountains — what more could you ask for?


Bryan in Taipei: Exploring Local History

October 5, 2018
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Flags of Spain, the Netherlands, Qing dynasty, Koxinga , U.K., Japan, Australia, U.S., and Taiwan flying at Fort San Domingo.

One of the most exciting parts of living in Taiwan so far has been discovering the many legacies and influences on the island’s rich culture. One of the courses I am taking while here focuses on this history from the arrival of the aboriginal tribes to present. This includes the arrival of the Dutch, the Qing dynasty, the Japanese occupation, and several different phases of history. I decided to go to 淡水 (Danshui, or Tamsui in the Wade-Giles romanticization), which lies just north of Taipei, to check out Fort San Domingo and the British Consulate to see one of the island’s first Western consulates, as well as some traditional Japanese architecture. Though I had the chance to visit the world-famous National Palace Museum, its contents are vast to say the least (it would take 15 years to see all of the items cycled through exhibitions) and pertain more to the history of the mainland than local history.

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British consulate in Danshui featuring colonial architecture.

The photo above is the British consulate, which remained in operation for several hundred years. It sits among the top of the hill and neighbors the old Spanish (and later Dutch) Fort San Domingo. It was largely responsible for housing the British consul, who could assist British merchants during trade or British citizens during other matters, and remained in operation until 1972.

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Residence of Tade Eikichi in Danshui. I had to take off my shoes before I could enter!

Another interesting site in Danshui is the former residence of Tade Eikichi, the township head of Danshui during Japanese rule. The Japanese occupied Taiwan for half a century and their influence is still felt in local cuisine, architecture, and several other customs. The house above is built completely resembling a traditional Japanese home, complete with a porch and a garden as well. This home faces the Guayin Mountain and Danshui River, which still serves as a source of inspiration for local artists to this day.

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View of the Guayin Mountain and Danshui River from Tade Eikichi’s residence.

While this post only scratches the surface of this topic, Danshui offers an interesting case-study on how this island came to become an amalgamation of several different cultures and create a unique one in its own right.

Until next time,

Bryan

 


Brooke Goes Global: The Caste System

September 26, 2018

Goodbye has inevitably arrived.  Its long awaited arrival has brought gifts of humbleness, compassion, and independence.  Here I am and here I go with faith in the process of hellos and goodbyes.  Goodbye, India.  Hello South Africa.

Still, feelings of bitter sweetness and surrealism consume my mind as I prepare for the next adventure.  Something as simple as a plane ride becomes my gateway to a new and exciting experience, moment, life.  My reality becomes the categorization of the past, present, and future.  India my past and South Africa my very near future.  And for the present — it lives in its own purgatory, fighting for the existence of both realms of the past and future.

This state of temporary madness causes the past few weeks to stir in my head.  My mind connects this with that, analyzes this, questions that, and ponders everything.  It bullies the rest of my body as all physicality fights to keep up.  Fighting the jet lag.  Fighting the weather conditions.  Fighting the sickness.  Fighting the need to sleep.  Yet my mind continues to grow, expand, and explore.  It needs not to fight any barriers.  It’s the one pushing me to keep going.  Temporary relief of my body’s contradiction only comes when writing.  So here I am, writing as my fingers become the newest victim of my brain’s wandering.  My mind thankfully settles into a steady pace as it chooses a topic of choice for my last post in India.  A topic that stirs up controversy, history, and oppression.  A topic that even Indian natives are unable to fully comprehend the consequences to.

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Before I begin, I want to remind my listeners that my writing originates through the eyes of a female, an American, a student, and an outsider.  By no means do I claim to have a overarching understanding of the complications of the Indian culture, but I do claim the right to share my experiences and interpretations of what constituted my life for the last month.

So I dive in, and here I emerge, knee deep in a 3,000 year old system of oppression — the caste system.  The caste system is unique to the Indian sub-continent.  Although other oppressive hierarchies, based on uncontrollable factors, have existed across the world and across time.

The caste system has roots in the Hindu religion.  In which more than 80% of the Indian population claim to practice.  The religion’s core foundations teach special individuals were formed from a particular body part of the Hindu god, Brahma.  Each body part represent a certain status within the earthly society.  For instance, the priests and teachers of the Hindu population were said to have been born from the head of Brahma, the highest honor.  The warriors and rulers were born from the shoulder of the god.  The farmers, traders and merchants were born from the stomach.  And the laborers were born from the foot.  This foundational teaching of the religion created a social hierarchy, justified by faith and culture.  The caste system expanded past the Hindu religion and spread to other religions including Islam and Christianity in India.   Over time, people’s occupation no longer determined caste.  Today, people are born into a caste.  They remain in this particular caste for the rest of their life and then pass it down to their children.

To go over some basics, the first three caste tiers are called Brahmins, Kshatriyas, and Vaishyas — born from the three highest places on the body.  These three tiers constitute the upper caste.  The lowest tier is called Shudras.  These four castes are born from the god Brahma and so deserve the corresponding respect and dignity paralleling this official status.  Then there are people who are considered the least pure in status.  They have not been birthed from the god Brahma.  These people make up what is called the scheduled caste.  This is the politically correct term for the Dalit caste, Untouchables, and tribal individuals.  The majority of the Indian population is part of this scheduled caste.

All of these individuals were deemed “untouchable” by the government, by religion, by society.  The scheduled caste was not permitted to use the same silverware as the upper caste.  They were segregated from the rest of the world because their “impure” bodies would contaminate the upper caste’s so called hygienic and luxurious life.  Culture decided the majority of the population did not deserve to be treated like a human because of a social label.  The scheduled caste became victim to horrendous and heinous crimes because of the nation’s caste hierarchy.  Massacre of the unarmed Untouchables in their homes became justified.  Rape of Untouchables became justified.  Brutalization and abuse of Untouchables became justified.  Police turned a blind eye well thousands suffered.  All justified through the caste system.

In 1950, the Indian government abolished the practice of “untouchability”.  It is 68 years later, and here I am, visiting a country with a rich history of violent inequity.  And 68 years later, the stigma and physical violence against the scheduled caste has decreased tremendously.  Nevertheless, I argue structural violence against the scheduled caste still exists.  It is perpetuated by institutions repressing the social rights of a large portion of the population.  This top down systemic violence causes a normalization of oppression and persecution for people of the scheduled caste.  History explains the present, so it is important to understand the context of the caste system.  I remind myself this as I try to understand the perspective of an upper caste, upper class individual who so blatantly told me that if you are educated in the least bit, you know the caste system does not exist.  But, here, I write out my contradiction to this statement. 

Today, more than 98% of manual laborers in India are people of the Dalit caste.  To illustrate the day of a Dalit worker as a manual laborer, I describe the job of a sewage worker.  In nothing more than a t-shirt and khaki pants, they are lowered into an underground pool of shit.  They submerge every inch of their body into the city’s cumulation of poop, piss, and toilet paper.  Diving into this disgusting mess of feces, they are forced to unclog the sewage pipes.  Two to three individuals die a day doing this work.  Yet, the caste system does not exist.

I had the opportunity to talk to an individual who worked at the National Dalit Campaign for Human Rights.  This individual was an advocate and activist for the Dalit community.  He was able to overcome persecution from his own country and climbed the economic ladder while still inevitably remaining at the bottom of the social ladder as a Dalit.  He now has a master’s degree in sociology and continues to fight for Dalit human rights every day.  His life trajectory, nonetheless, is much easier said than done.  He grew up during a time of post-abolition “untouchability” laws.  Yet, still labeled as a Dalit, he faced incredible instances of prejudice and bigotry.

He had successfully completed his senior year of high school.  This in itself is a great feat for someone of the Dalit caste.  Too often they are forced to drop out because they can no longer withstand the mental and physical abuse they receive from upper caste classmates and teachers.  Or too often their family decides the child will contribute more to the family by dropping out of school and working instead.  This was not the case for this determined student.   During the last week of his schooling, his teacher informed him he would be graduating as top student in the class.  He would graduate as Valedictorian.  When he read the list of names posted on the school wall, to his surprise his name had been printed next to number two.  The school refused to have a Dalit as their Valedictorian.  The school refused to let a Dalit represent their academics.  His studies, effort, determination, and intelligence had been invalidated because of a societal label.  Yet, caste does not exist.

During our week long visit to the rural Indian district of Bahriach, we stayed in the neighborhood’s private elementary school.  Here, a Dalit cleans the bathrooms.  He has worked as the school’s janitor for 4 years and has worked for the community municipal building as a street cleaner for 9 years.  Nine years ago, his family asked him to stop attending school and to instead find a job.  At the age of 14, he was the only one in a house of two parents and 4 children who brought in an income.  In 9 years at the municipal building, never has he received a promotion.  In 9 years, never has he received a raise.  I asked him, “do you feel your job compensates you fairly for the work you do?”.  I watched as he took a moment to comprehend the translator’s interpretation of my question.  His eyes shifted as his lips created foreign sounds unfamiliar to me.  Then, the translator spoke, “Anything they give me, I am thankful for.”  I stood in shock as I attempted to digest his heartbreaking response.  He doubts his ability because his employer, school, society, religion, and government have all told him he is nothing.  He is replaceable.  He is unsuccessful.  He is not a worthy member of the Indian society.  Structural violence has shattered his self-confidence and his self-worth.  Systems and institutions all play a role in oppressing his life.  He has lived in a state of structural violence for so long he sees no path towards opportunity.  Yet, caste does not exist.

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Bahriach

The caste system does not exist, but no one I talked to married outside of their caste.  The caste system does not exist, but official government forms still ask for your caste.  The caste system does not exist, but Dalits are still experiencing structural violence every day.

We’re six weeks into the program and in six weeks my life has been turned on its head.  My standards of normal have been challenged.  My culture has been ignored as a new one forcefully replaced it.  And the funny part is, it’s happening again today as I move to South Africa.  And then again, in one month when I move to my final country of Brazil.  But this is what I asked for.  I asked for a challenge and an adventure.  By all means, I have not been disappointed.


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