My Host Family- 2/10

My host family is a bit unique in that it’s not a traditional nuclear family. Rather, I live with a divorced mother of two, her daughter, her daughter’s boyfriend, and their four dogs. There’s also a girl from Scranton doing a homestay in the same house. I’m the only person from OU who’s living with a host family instead of at the apartments, and I don’t regret that decision. I get two meals a day and my laundry done for me, there’s a bakery five minutes from my house, and I can practice my Spanish every day, plus it’s a few hundred dollars cheaper than living in the apartments.

My host mom is a real character. She owns the house next door and rents it out to around ten students from various Latin American countries, but she says she prefers students on homestay. According to her, it’s less awkward to pay the money through an intermediary, and she considers the students part of her family.

I’ve certainly been treated like a member of the family while I’ve been here. Olivia, my host mother, has taken me on half a dozen trips to the center of Puebla, once while her son was visiting from Tulum. When my mother came to visit me, Olivia showed her around the downtown while I was in class. She’s given me restaurant recommendations, driven me around, and overall been an invaluable resource about Puebla. I highly recommend living with a host family if you get the option.

Mexico Arrival- 1/10

“Ladies and gentlemen, damas y caballeros, welcome to the ground.” That’s how the pilot of my plane to Mexico announced our arrival in Puebla, after a rather abrupt drop at the end of a three-hour flight in the smallest jet I’ve ever been on. It was so small that, even though American Airlines normally allows two carry-ons, everyone had to check their second carry-on. If you’re planning on flying into Puebla, make sure your smaller carry-on has all your valuables: if you have to check your laptop, it’ll be returned to you in several pieces.
We met all of our professors, our fellow students, and our student coordinator at the airport. While the last of our cohort made their way through customs, we exchanged the first of our money, and learned a trick for converting pesos to dollars. The exchange rate is currently about 19 or 20 pesos to the dollar, so you take the price in pesos, drop a zero, and divide the result in half.

My first impression of Mexico was of the giant van that took us on the forty-minute drive from the airport, in Huejotzingo, to Puebla proper. (Puebla is both a city and a state, somewhat like New York.) Eight people and all their baggage were crammed together in the van, but it was a good way to start to chat with people.

We finally arrived at the student apartments, where everyone else was living and my host mother waited to pick me up. I’m the only student this semester who’s staying with a host family rather than in the apartments. I decided on a host family because it would be easier to practice my Spanish when Spanish was my only option. Plus, it’s several hundred dollars cheaper than the apartments, and your host family cooks you breakfast and dinner every day of the week. I’m always budget conscious and never have time to cook, so it was a no-brainer for me.

Syrian Christianity Presentation

Last week, I had the privilege to attend a lecture on the past and present state of Christians in Syria and the Levant from an Oxford professor, Dr Zonner. His presentation focused on the way Syrian Christians have oscillated between being seen as outsiders and insiders, and what this historical knowledge means for the present. His thesis was that Syrian Christians’ status as insiders or outsiders is symptomatic of society as a whole. This is reflected in ISIS’s current rule of Islamic law over historically Christian areas of Syria, leading to a mass exodus from the region.

Syria is home to a large Christian minority, which used to be around 5-10 percent of the country and has been there for longer than the country has been majority Muslim. Once the country was under Arab conquest, Christians were controlled with a poll tax and it wasn’t legal to build new churches or display crosses, but they were allowed to practice their religion as “people of the book.” Many of them went into trade with other Christian countries, and as such became wealthier and better educated than the average Muslim even while they had certain restrictions on their religious expression. Dr Zonner noted that although these limitations seem arcane and oppressive today, Syrian Christians in the Middle Ages were treated far better than European Jews were treated by Christians in the same period.

In the 1800s, restrictions on the practice of Christianity ceased, as the Ottoman Empire switched from Islamic to secular law. Courts ruled that Christians and Jews had the same rights as Muslims, and the Empire tried to promote political identity over religious identity. At the same time, Syrian Christians had more contact than ever with Western traders, increasing their wealth and status. However, some Syrian Muslims began to be skeptical of clauses that gave Christians economic power, and perceived them as uppity. Sectarian bloodshed was on the rise.

Arab nationalism became popular after World War One, promoting a shared Arab cultural identity over that of any religion or country. Religious minorities supported it, and several key Arab nationalists were born in or converted to Christianity. However, in Syria, Arab Nationalism went sectarian, with the government’s Bath Party controlled by a small Shi’i sect over a Sunni majority. Christians supported the Bath Party and were seen as complicit in the brutality of the Assad regime. The more they were perceived as complicit with the regime and thus threatened by Muslims, the more Christians doubled down on supporting Assad.

This created a great deal of frustration against Christians and Shi’is in the Sunni Muslim majority. The most successful rebels against the Assad regime promised a return to an Islamic state, with Christians as second-class citizens, and Isis delivered on that promise. Currently, Christians in ISIS territory have few options: convert, pay a poll tax, run, be sold into slavery, or be killed. Christian churches and property are seized and repurposed or destroyed; shrines and ruins are demolished. The Assad regime is largely indifferent to this brutality because it’s happening to minorities in a strategically unimportant part of the country, and because the regime has committed war crimes of its own from which it wants to distract the West.

Dr Zonner was hesitant to describe the future of the Middle East, focusing instead on the present, but he did describe a potential effect of this homogenization of Syria: a greater homogenization of the Middle East, into one people with one religion and one ethnicity.

Fulbright Information Meeting

Last Friday I had the opportunity to attend an information meeting on the Fulbright award. It’s an opportunity to spend a year abroad doing research, teaching English, and in some cases learning a critical language. The purpose of the program is cultural exchange, in both directions. If you’re teaching English, as I want to, you aren’t just teaching your students about grammar but about the United States. Meanwhile, you’re integrating yourself into the local community and bringing back a wealth of cultural knowledge when you return to the US. Returning is very important, because the Fulbright is in some ways an investment into American youth. Even though there isn’t a service component, like the Boren award, the people who are benefited by this program are expected to use the talents they gain in the country that gave them such an opportunity.

There are two main types of award, research grants and ETA awards. Research grants are for people who want to conduct any kind of research, from lab interviews to field work, in the country they choose. ETA awards are for people who want to teach English in the country of their choice, and may have an opportunity to audit classes or start a small research project in the time they don’t spend teaching. You can’t apply for both options, nor can you apply to multiple countries; you have to pick one situation and learn as much about it as you can.

However, there are ways to combine elements of research and teaching grants. Not only is it possible to pursue some research while teaching, there’s a special type of award, called the Critical Language Enhancement Award, that allows you to research or teach while receiving funding to learn a crucial language to US national defense. The languages offered are Arabic, Indonesian, Bengali, Gujarati, Hindi, Mandarin, Marathi, Urdu, Punjabi, and Russian. Unlike the Boren Awards, there aren’t options to learn a target language in places where it isn’t the dominant language. If I wanted to study Russian with a Boren award, for example, I probably wouldn’t be allowed to go to Russia, and would instead study in a place like Kazakhstan or Estonia; with Fulbright, the only option for learning Russian with CLS is Russia. I could pursue a Fulbright in those countries and still audit courses in Russian, but I wouldn’t receive a special award to do so.

The process of applying for a Fulbright is relatively straightforward. There are three dates to turn in the application, and two of them are specific to OU. There’s the date by which you have to have your application turned in to the OU office, so they can give you an interview and talk about ways to improve your application. That interview is in September and is only half an hour. But there’s also an earlier date to submit the application, late July. In that case, you get an hour-long interview, which goes into far more detail about how to improve your application, and people who use that deadline have a much higher chance of being accepted. I’m not sure how that deadline would work if one was off-campus for the summer; I’ll have to ask at a later date.

Chances for the Fulbright are complicated by the fact that a lot of people who are applying simply aren’t qualified. The national average is something like 16-18 percent, but OU’s average has been around 25% for the last five years. This is probably due to the incredible amount of work the staff does at making sure people are ready to apply, in part by hosting excellent seminars like this one.

El Camino de Santiago

Today I spent around an hour and a half with the Spanish club listening to, as the professor introduced himself, “a Germanist who’s going to tell you about Spain.” Dr Joseph Sullivan is a medievalist who walked the French route of the Camino de Santiago last summer.
He showed us pictures of the route, brief interviews he did with fellow pilgrims, and interesting tidbits about the history of the route. For example, many of the monuments along the Route fell by the wayside after Protestantism declared that pilgrimages weren’t proper Christian acts, but were later restored by the Franco dictatorship.
He also offered advice about the trip itself, suggesting that we pack very lightly and not try to walk more than 12 miles a day. Apparently there are people of all ages and walks of life on the route, regardless of nationality, so it’s an excellent time to meet people and practice your Spanish. I thought the talk was fascinating, even though I’m not planning on walking the Camino myself.

“Brexit and the Future of the European Idea”

Tonight I went to a talk by a British gentleman on Brexit. I didn’t know it at the time, but the man, Sir Roger Scruton, was extremely conservative. He’s the author of many books, including one titled “How To Be A Conservative,” and another entitled “The Disappeared.” In the latter, a novel, a British schoolteacher has to save a North English girl from a gang of Muslim sex traffickers. This theme of Muslims as oppressive to women’s sexual health was repeated several times in the presentation: Scruton referenced a case in which the European Union prohibited Britain from deporting an “illegal immigrant” who committed rape, and mentioned that while Muslim countries may have intact families, “I’m not sure it’s a family any of us would want to live in, especially the women…” He went on to suppose that in every Muslim immigrant family, there are three brides vying for the attention of a husband, which strikes me as both illegal under British law and highly implausible by the law of supply and demand.

It’s Scruton’s belief that the UK deserves special treatment for being the UK, that it embodies a certain European ideal by virtue of being unified states under one kingdom. He stated England’s common law, as opposed to the Continent’s civil law, as another reason Great Britain is unique and exceptional. Never mind, of course, that this unity of language and religion only exists because England forcibly colonized Scotland and North Ireland; never mind that England enthusiastically suppressed the civil rights of India and South Africa long after its own freedom was supposedly curtailed by the Treaty of Rome. His belief in British superiority extended even to landscape. When you go to France, he said, you see plots of land all over, and nary a fence in sight to curtail them, whereas in England all the little villages have neat gardens and tidy fences to mark whose land is whose. He sounded rather like a combination of the N.W.A. from “Hot Fuzz” and the unnamed neighbor from Robert Frost’s poem “Mending Wall:” Britain is the bastion of European ideals, its systems of law create superior human rights, its language is the one used in global commerce- and therefore, because of all the reasons it’s such a great country, it must close its doors to foreigners. As in Frost’s poem, Scruton believes that good fences make good neighbors.

Scruton deeply opposes the Free Movement Clause of the European Union, believing that it gives citizens of countries such as Lithuania a reason to flock to England- for, in his view, everyone wants to learn English- and take the jobs of the “indigenous people.” Moreover, he blames the youth who abandon ex-CCP countries for those countries’ weakness against Russia, insinuating that without a strong military at the border all of Europe is prey to Putin. It’s as if NATO doesn’t exist to him, and neither does multiculturalism. His entire prescription for Europe is the same as the Angel of America’s to Prior Walter: “STAY PUT.” Go back to the way things used to be, make Great Britain for Britons only, and all of the problems the EU has will be solved. If Scruton accuses the EU of always looking forward, he himself spends a great deal of time looking backwards, not considering the advances that have been made or the economic advantages Britain gained as a result of the EU.

He moves in darkness as it seems to me,
Not of woods only and the shade of trees.
He will not go behind his father’s saying,
And he likes having thought of it so well
He says again, ‘Good fences make good neighbors." -Robert Frost

новые горизонты (New Horizons)

My family has a long history of language learning. My grandpa was quadrilingual, my mother learned French and Russian, and I’m working my way up to their level. I only have Spanish so far, but Letters requires an ancient language, and I’m planning to minor in Russian. Given my double major, I don’t have five hours a week to spend in intro classes, so I’m studying it on my own.

This isn’t as hard as it could be. My mom and grandpa were both Russian majors, and my grandpa actually taught Russian, so we have a bunch of education materials sitting around the house. I’m already familiar with the accent and I have somebody to practice with. But I’m not used to self-directed study: I spent eight years learning Spanish in a classroom, with neat charts and clear curricula. I’m still working out how to organize all the resources I have, let alone working on a coherent plan with them. For now, it’s half an  hour of writing Cyrillic script and reading printed Cyrillic every day, listening to Russian music whenever possible, and fiddling around with various Russian learning programs. I’ll start working with the LLC after break is over, but right now I’ll be happy if I can just learn the difference between Ш and Щ.

False Friends

I’ve been studying Spanish for eight years now, and every time I think I’m finally making progress, I realize in short order how little I really know. I can talk for 20 minutes on the differences between regions of the US, and then be reduced to pantomime because I forgot the word for “deer;” I still have trouble with por and para; and when I introduced myself to the Spanish Club this year, I said I was “embarazada” for embarrassed. Me sentía avergonzada, to be sure, but I definitely was not pregnant.

Spanish has a lot of these false cognates, which look like a familiar word and then betray you. When I need a word I don’t know, I often give a Latin-seeming word a Spanish accent or add an “acion” to the end, and call it a day. This has not served me well: bigotes are mustaches, not intolerant, enviar is to send letters, not to be jealous, and un perrito largo is a long puppy, not a large one. There are even more if you count the borrowings in American Spanish that would scandalize Academia Real. It’s commonly accepted in some parts of the US that “carpeta” is really a carpet, rather than a binder, and “actualmente,” which normally means “currently,” is taken at face value.

Study Abroad Options

One of the good things about being on the AP track is the insane number of classes it let me skip in college. I’m a first-semester freshman and I came in with 36 credits; I’ll be done with my Gen Eds this year, and I got to jump ahead to junior-level Spanish classes. Spanish is one of my majors, and if it were all I studied, I could be done in two years. That’s great, because it lets me double-major with minimal stress, but it’s also terrifying, because it means studying abroad isn’t just a blip on the horizon. It’s a distinct event that has to be planned now. On my Spanish track, I’ll be able to take a semester abroad by Spring 2017. And since I’m a debater and competitions are only in the US, I’ll be too busy going to Nationals in junior and senior year to take a semester off.

I’m a planner, so I’m already looking at all the possible options for my semester. It has to be in a Spanish-speaking country that’s relatively cheap, and it can’t be one where the locals are likely to know English. Spain is right out; it’s got the Euro and tons of Europeans know English, plus I never learned to conjugate “vosotros.” My best option seemed to be an exchange program in Peru, until I ran into the OU in Puebla booth at the study abroad fair.

I’ve knocked OU’s foreign centers in the past; they’re an easy way to stick with OU students on OU property, learning from OU teachers in English, and not really connect with locals. I’ve talked with plenty of Arezzo alumni who don’t know a lick of Italian. But what drew me to Puebla is the homestay option. Most study abroad programs either leave housing arrangements up to the students or stick them in a dorm specific to foreigners, so that you live with and socialize with largely English speakers. But living with a local family gives you constant exposure to the language and culture. It’s a great way to pick up colloquialisms and truly connect with the country.