Stories from the field

month July 2015

Raviv Litman – Podcast 2: National Service and the economics of reciprocation

In this podcast, I talk about two aspects that affected interview participants’ studies overseas. Funding and military service put young Singaporean men in a position of obligation, but while some people react with strategic consent or outright support, others find ways to resist or negotiate their positions between the state and family welfare. The transition from military service to looking for financial support for international tuition fees can be challenging. I discuss some participants’ perspectives on the challenges they experience in pursuit of the Singaporean dream.



Paying it back and forth

My trip to Singapore started with tea. Have you ever wondered what it takes to make a cup of tea? The simple answer is tea leaves, but within that material there is layer upon layer of process, meaning, and investment. Last month I was living in a tea factory in Yunnan China, and I was lucky enough to get a tour of the opporations. In this case it started with an Anthropologist, a man who had taken classes at the state university on the cultural of tea. When he graduated he accumulated capital from his network of family and friends to buy a concrete storage site in a small village. He then met with the local patriarchs and materiarchs to arrange the purchase of their tea. These opporations led to further tea plantations, bringing the village closer into the capitalist economy of the region. Younger villagers were retained to dry, roast, and press the leaves into cakes, while the anthropologist turned tea boss now looked to the second and third phases of a successful modern business; marketing and mass distribution. For this he highered not villagers, but a mix of attractive young women, anthropology graduates, and members of his extended family to expand into the national and international markets. Social media profiles and urban stores began to expand, borrowing symbols and names from the old villages and myths associated with them.

That, more or less, is how tea gets on your table, through complex networks of mobile capital, traditional crafts, family bonds, creative branding, etc.. In this tangle of practice I want to draw a core theme that I will revisit throughout my thesis research: a network. The group of seemingly unrelated people, things and organizations that are intimately connected in the act of investing their resources and expertise, such as in a cake of tea. In this case, I will substitute tea for and international education. 

So who invests in international education? the simple answer would usually be either ones family, or a shadowy scholarship council. Like tea leaves, the full answer involves so much more, becuase not only is an international education a consumptive product, it is also a crossroads in the lives of many young students. The meaning it takes on in their lives is steared by this larger network that is only beginning to become visible in my studies.

Yesterday I went to the first interview of my research period. To get there involved a series of machanics. First the elevator from the public housing building I am living in, than the vast and expanding subway network brought me downtown, than the well queued escalator brought me into the airconditioned mall which sprawled accross the waterfront. In this process of transportation there was hardly any interaction with the hot and humid outdoors. In Singapore I spend the vast majority of my time in a built enviornment. The envrionment of clockwork and temperature control is the perfect metaphor for what is going on around me; Singapore is a controlled environment. As one collegue descrided it to me “it is the ultimate social experiment”.

In this first two interview my understanding of the international education system was rocked in its foundation, division between what I thought a typical overseas experince and how he had experinced it became visible. Relationships between parents and children were more fluid than I had assumed, and I realized that I need to take a step back in my assumptions about this project.

In this case, my coorespondant engaged with Western culture, and found it contradictory to the values he had learned at home, in school, in his time in the army, and with international student friends. Many young men I met seem deeply invested in the political identity of their country, despite the limitations on public expression, and this often comes back to what their ancestors have invested in the founding of Singapore or the growth of its economy, and what they invested and recieved in their military service. I get a general sense of obligation, not only to the family or the state, but to an image of the island of Singapore as a place that has created oppurtunity, and requires to be perserved for future generations. One interview and a few conversations do not speak for everyone, but like the picture at the top of this blog implies, paying back can seem the safest option.

Kylie Pettifer – Blog 2: Community Creation & Privileged Information

Throughout my experience so far I have had a love-hate relationship with my wifi connection. Even before the internet, as someone who grew up in libraries, I have always thrived on information. When I have a question, I dig until I find the answer. But the ability to access information is changed in a place where you can’t communicate well, and in Japan turning to the internet may not always be possible. Sometimes your questions do not make sense to locals long immersed in your new context. Sometimes you feel burdensome constantly asking. But I have found that when your ability to independently solve problems is compromised, the greatest opportunities for community emerge. It is in these moments that I have found the greatest sense of connection with those around me and discovered local gems that the internet may never have led me to.

Language is probably one of the most frustrating barriers CAPI interns will face during their times abroad. While you are here, your desire for connection is great as is the opportunity for adventure at hand. During my first month I picked up the necessary, popular Japanese greetings, but found myself unable to go more in-depth. People would often come up to me and make a comment or ask a question, and I would hear phrases commonly repeated, but I am unable to engage meaningfully in many parts of daily life. Because the Japanese alphabet is entirely different than English, looking up words is not an option. However, this has led to many interesting conversations with my co-workers whereby I try to imitate sounds or explain the context where I heard the phrase. It turns out that there are just some sounds I am apparently not physically capable of making. When I was partnered with a tutor in June I finally had the information I so desperately desired and our sessions are one of the highlights of my week. Now I can read Hiragana, one of the 3 sets of Japanese characters (there are over 40!). The first day I sounded out a word on the train and I got so excited that the guy beside me said something. I will always wonder what conversations could have been. Last night I was stopped on the street by a group of excited Japanese ladies. We had a conversation for a few minutes while they used single English words they knew and I used the little Japanese I had. I still have no idea what they wanted or why they were so excited, but I’m pretty sure it had to do with religion? Nonetheless they were excited I had stopped, gave me a newspaper article and a cellphone number to call and wished me a good evening. Despite the fact I did not get much from the content of our conversation, their efforts to embrace me into their community (whatever that may be) gave a positive energy to entire interaction. In moments like that you realize that it not the content that matters, it is the connection.

Adventuresare something I usually prepare for. Meticulous about details I look up train times, possible sights where I’m going, closing hours, etc. As a result I usually know where I am going to go and what I am going to see before I get there. The lack of accessible information in Japan has forced me to shift from my usual comfort zone into what I am calling “planned spontaneity.” One of the first questions I usually ask people I meet is what their favorite place is in Japan or the Greater Tokyo Area. Many people give me similar answers and I always note the most popular ones. When I first realized that my privilege of ready access to information was going to be taken away, I started stockpiling a list of names and mapping out where they were whenever the wifi gods shined on me. Then on my weekend mornings I pick a place and just go.

This has made my travel way more fun and way more meaningful because I am present. Even if I get places when they are closed or spend more time getting lost overall I lose the fear of missing out on what could come and focus on the experience at hand. I don’t have to rush to see this or eat that or go here. I climbed Mt. Takao last weekend and I got to the train station at the base with no idea where to go. I followed the crowd and the signs and next thing you know I’m onwards and upwards. The cool thing about Japan is that you’re never alone. Even in a forest there are almost always people around. And in circumstances like this despite the language there is a solidarity among people that we are all here with the same goal and that in itself forms the community. We say konichiwa as we pass each other on the trail (though I’m pretty sure one section was actually just walking through a river) and we feel connected in our journey to the top. Again what matters is not the content, but the context.

I realise now what a privilege it is to have access to information. For people around the world who are illiterate, deaf, blind, monolingual, unconnected to the internet and without access to education, life must be so much more challenging when barriers are put in front of them.  It is easy to understand how people can be misled, how religions can be misinterpreted and how development can take a stand still. In this way the internet can be an incredible tool to break down barriers. But at the same time the internet can be incredibly isolating, making it possible to by-pass physical communities in to maintain virtual ones. No longer is there a need to ask for directions or take a class to learn something new. It’s all online and we can thrive as independent units with access to all the answers. But this way of thinking may not bode well for us long term and the consequences of thinking that it is possible to solve every problem technologically may be high. Because sometimes the best solution is the simplest one, and the value created from a community in solidarity should never be overlooked.

While I like to know things and planning is definitely important for mitigating risk, I realize now that it’s actually more fun not knowing sometimes and seeing what surprises await you. The experiences can be more powerful than you imagine and the connections made just as strong as the ones from a wifi signal.

Tabitha Black-Lock – Blog 1: Ramadan in Bangladesh

Shortly after arriving in Dhaka, Bangladesh, the Muslim month of Holy Ramadan began. For this first month, a great deal of my experiences have been shaped by Ramadan, and therefore I have chosen to write about what I have learned about Ramadan as a way to share a glimpse of the importance it has in the country.  I will give a very brief introduction to fasting, Ramadan and its religious significance, as well as the influence it has in Bangladesh in regards to migration, meals (iftar) and day to day schedules. I will also share my personal experience of Ramadan, as well as a brief discussion of Eif ul-Fitre. 

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