So many things are different when you enter another culture within a culture, like here living with Buddhists in Hindu-dominated India. You inevitably make tons of mistakes. In fact, my nickname "Bano" was acquired on my first trip to Nicaragua many years ago in which I had a hard time figuring out the difference between a bathroom and a laundry room, but that's a different story.
This week I accidently locked a house-cleaner into our guest room for a good 30 minutes and they had to somehow find me wandering the university campus to let him out (which they somehow did). A cultural misunderstanding over how locks are handled. But that also is another story.
What I want to write about this morning is Sarah Palin, one of America's former candidates for Vice President, a candidate that is easy fodder for comedy shows like Saturday Night Live. Today, a valued and smart friend of mine was appalled by a news article she had just come across, headlined, "Sarah Palin; Native Americans should go back to Nativia". and posted it on Face book.
Now this idea is crazy but given what Sarah Palin has said in the past, it IS quite believable, and, truth be told, I WANTED to believe it was true. It would reinforce my preconceived notions about her. But something told me I should withhold judgment just a tad more than I was comfortable with, and fact-check it, which I did at a more reliable source for internet rumors, Snoops. And there, sadly, I saw it was blatantly false. Never said. Viral rumor.
Yesterday I was talking with Tenzin Kunsel, head administrator in the Tibetan university’s office of the Vice Chancellor, who was telling me of the importance of educating students about 'discernment." He gave an example of how Muslims were reportedly killed recently in a riot by Buddhists in Myanmar, and a photo was attached with it of Buddhist monks in Tibet burying dozens of people killed in a natural disaster, placing them in mass graves, inferring this was proof of the Buddhist massacre of Muslims in Myanmar. A totally false claim, but the photo and article went viral and as a result, Buddhist started getting targeted around the world and beat up and killed over it.
I find this ability to withhold judgment for slightly longer than we are comfortable with, to check out alternative realities before going with our preconceived assumptions, is one of the most important skills to nourish in today's world. As we work across cultures, it is so darn hard dealing with the unknown that we want and feel an urgent need to have things "make sense" quickly to reduce our anxiety over uncertainty. But it only leads to further problems.
Sometimes it’s trapping someone in a room due to a cultural misunderstanding about locking doors. Sometimes it leads to something much worse.
“What is the difference between a banjo and a Harley-Davidson motorcycle?”, Susan, the lead singer of our country band asked the Seattle crowd at a recent gig. “You can tune a Harley.”
Well, I am here to report that my trusted banjo just flew for 22 hours, Seattle to India at 33,000 feet and when I pulled it out here in India to play, it was in PERFECT tuning!
I was so happy that when Nyima Tsering, my new friend who will be co-teaching a course with me here at the Central University of Tibetan Studies, cajoled me to play that evening at a celebration performed by teachers-in-training here, I readily obliged.
I taught them the chorus from “Down the Road”, a true country classic and all 200 of them sang it with great gusto and delight!
Other than saying Hi (Tashi Delek) and Thank You (Thuk je che), I don't have a lot of Tibetan down yet, but the universal language of music had us talking flawlessly for those three minutes while I was on stage.
Just when you think you are on to something, you find out you’re not.
I thought I was on to something 13 years ago when a very bright twenty-two year old educator showed some first graders I was working with how they could talk, sing and dance with first graders in Vanuatu, Indonesia using Skype. Since that time, I have worked with faculty and students in dozens of countries to connect with each other to not just talk and dance, but to problem-solve and take action together on social issues. I recently received a Fulbright- Nehru Fellowship to come to India for nine months and teach, using these international collaborative strategies and coach faculty at the Central University of Tibetan Studies (CUTS), as well as with other universities in South-central Asia. Pretty heady stuff.
So a few days ago I boarded my plane, with twenty-one hours of flight time to kill, and decide to pull out an article my long-time friend, Andrea, sent me in the mail just before I left. I have known her and her husband Alan for decades and they are wise beyond their years, which is no easy task, given that they are both pushing ninety.
The article is about the rebirth of the first university in the world, Nalanda that began in the 6th century here in India, not far from CUTS. In fact, the university in which I am to now teach and advise faculty is rooted in this very same Nalanda University, both built around Buddhist philosophy. Nalanda University was guided at its core by the importance of international collaborative learning, and drew students from around the world; Korea, China, etc.
It’s true that the university got destroyed by Turkish invaders back in the 13th century, but it has now been rebuilt in this very rural, very poor original community, carrying on that same international education.
Ok, so, they have a few centuries head start on me in this international collaboration field, but did they have Skype? .
I hope someday I will be wise beyond my years too. But today, I feel I have a lot of catching up to do.
Losing an argument leads to career
I’ve now traveled or lived in more than 30 countries, from India, Egypt, Gaza and Iraq, to Guatemala, Peru, Nicaragua and soon, Thailand. But it didn’t start out that way. Not even close.
I grew up in Spokane, Washington, “heart of the Inland Empire”, and I believed that was quite enough, thank you. The farthest east I had traveled by the time I was 29 was Denver, Colorado. When my wife first proposed that we fly to Israel to see a kibbutz community where she had once lived, I thought she was nuts.
“Hey, there are parts of the United States I have never even been too, honey. How about we start there?” She was not persuaded.
What does cause some of us to seek out the unknown, and others to shrink from it?
Jaak Panksepp, a leading neuroscientist at Washington State University has studied this issue for decades through extensive animal research. Seven ancient instincts, in his view, drive the human being: SEEKING, ANGER, PANIC-GRIEF, MATERNAL CARE, PLEASURE/LUST, AND PLAY. And of these, SEEKING is the underpinning driver. When that instinct is diminished, we often experience depression.
I find that my teaching today is driven by the desire to stimulate the SEEKING instinct in students. I want them to develop an unquenchable thirst for understanding how other people “tick”, especially those that seem to be radically different from themselves. Then I want them to develop the talent to investigate and peel back the layers on the surface, and see what lies deep beneath. Not just in others, but in themselves.
Some students will initially only travel this road kicking and screaming. Just like me. Some will do it if the incentives (bonus points toward an “A”) are particularly attractive. But once that SEEKING instinct kicks in, But once that SEEKING instinct kicks in, it’s like a powerful drug that keeps you coming back for more.
This is not the only argument I have lost in my life, but it is one of the most rewarding ones.
In September, I head to India for a year to teach students and university faculty how to learn directly with other students around the world in international course collaborations. I hope you’ll join me on the journey through this blog. If you teach, I hope you will get new ideas for how you can embed international collaboration strategies within your own courses. If you have a particular interest in India, I hope you gain some new insights by seeing it through my eyes. I believe ideas and perspectives are best understood if we know something about the person who is filtering those ideas. If you choose to come along, you will get my warped, twisted and unique perspective, as all perceptions are.
I always learn way more than I expect to learn when I travel. And I expect a lot. Last time I traveled was to Egypt in 2012 to find and engage university partners. It was 100 days after the first democratically elected President in Egypt in 40 years. The young Egyptian students I met with expressed fierce, determined optimism, which fought daily with blistering disappointment and anger at how little had been accomplished in the first 100 days. The students in Egypt and in Seattle shared their perspectives on this and other social justice issues like female harassment and freedom of the press, over Skype and in late night live chat conversations with my students in Seattle. And in both countries, students worked with local non-profits who were working on solutions to these issues. It was eye opening to all of us to find out how little we really knew.
I usually travel solo on my trips abroad, but this time I will be coming with Kimi, my fiance and soon to be wife, who, for the record, is a Texan. Which is kind of like being with someone from another country. She grew up on a ranch herding cattle, while I was a city slicker, from a neighborhood my dad affectionately called Poverty Flats. There are lots of cows on the streets of India, so it seems like a good way to combine our urban and rural lifestyles. Well, we will see.
Abel-Moneim Habib talking with students at Menoufia U. Fall,2012
(From Abdel-Moneim Habib , a professor at Menoufia University in Egypt with whom I met while in Egypt last fall)
The sad turn of events in Egypt after the break-up of the anti-government sit-ins in two Muslim Brotherhood supporters encampment has left many people in Egypt and abroad at a loss. The mayhem perpetrated by the MB supporters and sympathizers should not be condoned. That is the reason that many an Egyptian feels betrayed by the stance taken by the US, France, and Turkey among others vis a vis the will of the masses in Egypt.
It is weird that the US administration, with a background of shameful history of human rights violation, preaches calm and restraint on the side of the Egyptian government. Many an Egyptian found that turning a blind eye to victimizing Egyptian Copts by the Western government is unacceptable. The Muslim Brotherhood supporters who carried and fired automatic weapons at police and other establishments are portrayed as victims of police brutality. But torching Coptic churches and Christian owned businesses and property pass without being given a wave of condemnation by the US, French and other Western administrations.
The Muslim Brotherhood has a dark history of violence directed to fellow Egyptians regardless of their religion. They would follow every measure to achieve their goals. They exported the image of the victim who was robbed of the democratically won throne of Egypt. Having lost the battle of the Rabaa and Nahda sit-ins they vowed to anybody live in peace. They would cross any limits to convince a credulous West of their cause. The secrets of the sad events in Rabaa still wait to unravel.
The accusations of police brutality and use of extreme force which led to the fatalities will have many explanations. In a telling comment (by a reader to the editor) on a related article (on Thursday August 15, 2013), a very witty view is revealed. It is worthwhile to quote it all here: “How do we know that the Muslim Brotherhood did not kill a large portion of these victims just to make the interim government look bad and to muster sympathy as well as recruit more potential "martyrs" for future bloody demonstrations?
I certainly would not put it past the Muslim Brotherhood to act in this way.” This refers to the brutality and terrorist strategy followed by the Muslim Brotherhood and Mohamed Morsi supporters. They spread mayhem, chaos, assassination and a scorched earth tactics and claim they are victims. Please everybody, make no mistake, the true victims of the Muslim Brotherhood terror are the poor peace-loving majority of the Egyptian people, whether they were Christians or Muslims.
Professor Osama Madany presenting at Menoufeya University. Presenting with Egypt activist Ahmed Salama and Greg Tuke
(Last fall, I met with activists, students and educators in Egypt to discuss social change ideas and how we might create learning partnerships between Egypt and US students. Below is an Open Letter I received this morning from Osama Madany, one of the leading educators I met with in Egypt).-Greg Tuke
The Grand Deception
-by Osama Madany
On February 11, 2011, Mubarak was ousted from power and with him thirty years of sheer corruption. Full of hope and aspiration, I then emotionally sent the following message to friends, five minutes after Mubarak was deposed:
"In tears and jubilation, I write to you my first e-mail from a free Egypt; in humility and pride, I write to you my first e-mail from the land of the brave; in disbelief and aspiration, I write to you my first e-mail from the cradle of civilization that will now be a beacon of liberty and justice. The dictator has fallen. The tyrant has conceded to the relentless will of the people. Decades of darkness have given way to the dawn of our revolution.
In the eyes of the young and the old, I see hope for a new Egypt, the same hope I saw when these same eyes witnessed torture and mutilation at the hands of a despotic regime. I thank you my dear friends for standing with us in our quest for salvation, and call upon you to continue to support us in this historic moment, to stand by our side in this critical transition, to believe in our will that we can seek and achieve freedom. With your unfaltering support for our cause, we have achieved the impossible.
Long live Egypt, long live the cradle of civilization, long live the free spirits of our brave people, and God bless the souls of those who have fallen in our battle for freedom. Their blood has not gone to waste.
We continue to hope."
After two years of sheer frustration, another president has been deposed yesterday. Jubilation has filled the streets of Egypt again, but this time the price will be heavy. Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood have failed to deliver the goods. Their lack of political experience has polarized the people beyond reconciliation. The clash between Islam and secularism has overwhelmed Egyptian political discourse. A pseudo Iran-model form of Islam has been the threat capitalized upon by many posing as liberals and secularists. The masses took the bait from a relentless anti-Morsi media and deposed a democratically elected president.
True, Morsi has failed in every aspect of his short-lived presidency, but true also that a military coup has put an end to the first democratic process Egypt has ever witnessed. The military establishment will work clandestinely to maneuver the country towards another state election that will bring forth a scarecrow president who will be a puppet in the hands of the military. Also, the door will now be wide open for the old cronies of the Mubarak regime to surface again on the political scene, and many of them will no doubt run for president in the next elections. It is in the best interest of a corrupt military establishment to support and bring forth one of the old corrupt regime cronies. With the Muslim vanguard now sidelined, the stage is set for the old and the corrupt to assume power again. It is redemption moment for them, and we are back to square one.
Each time, the youths of this country erupt against the corruption and looting of the old, whether Islamists or liberals, their revolution is high- jacked by the same cronies over and again. The young revolt, fill the streets, depose the president, and return satisfied back home, leaving an empty space that is quickly filled by the corrupt and the inept. They must see through the grand deception, and act accordingly.
As previously noted, there is no ready-made recipe for reform. Corruption is ingrained within the fabrics of society that it needs extraordinary willpower to uproot it. Ours is a power struggle of the political elite who are manipulating the feelings of the ignorant and misinformed masses. I see real reform in the hands of a young, aspiring generation of Egyptians ready to make a clean start. I see the only hope for a selfless, sincere approach to our imminent catastrophe in the hands of a generation that has not been tarnished by the vicious, intertwining circles of corruption that have doomed our ageing elites, and sent them in the path of destroying a country they have grown to believe is theirs and theirs only. Those under the age of forty five must coalesce, and select a leader(s) to take control. They must form civic societies, political factions, and activist groups to transfer power to themselves. Only then will they be empowered by their generation which comprises more than sixty percent of the nation. The ageing elites have deprived and continue to deprive this younger generation of taking the initiative for leadership, which makes this process impossible to take motion. But we must have the will to derail those corrupt, selfish ageing fools who are manipulating the masses for their own personal glory. The young must assume power. This historical moment must not bypass them now. They must see clearly through the grand deception.
This week, I felt like a boxer who was first hit hard with an upper-cut to the head, then sucker punched with a second to the gut. The first hit came from an article in the NY Times, titled "No Rich Child Left Behind." The article reported a number of research findings that dispelled common myths about education reform. The one that stood out most to me was this; "It may seem counter-intuitive, but schools don't seem to produce much of the disparity in test scores between high and low-income students. We know this because children from rich and poor families score very differently on school readiness tests when they enter kindergarten, and this gap grows by less than 10% between kindergarten and high school....the academic gap is widening because rich students are increasingly entering kindergarten much better prepared to succeed in school than middle-class students."
Reading on, it was clear that the leverage point in education, the place we could score the most in reducing the widening gap between rich and poor is investing in child care and preschool. Clear enough.
Until I picked up the Seattle Times and read this; "Per Pupil Spending on Pre-K Lowest in Decade." Don't get me wrong, there is a lot we could do to improve education all along the line, birth through completion of college. And we should. It's why organizations like the Road Map Project and Powerful Schools-two organizations I have worked closely with-are so important. But we need to be smart about where we invest the most time, the most money and the most effort. Or else we all will keep getting sucker punched year after year after year.
Greg Tuke teaches and travels internationally, working with university faculty in India, Indonesia and the MIddle East, sharing strategies for implementing international collaborations within course work. This blog chronicles key experiences and insights about those experiences. All opinions expressed are mine, and represent no other institutional affiliation.